Monday, October 29, 2007

Convention Address

video
The suffering in Liberia is not unlike suffering in other places of the world. Jesus calls us out into the world, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison. We are called to be a people of action, people who go out and meet the needs of the suffering.

But it’s not just about what we get done or the outcome, it’s about relationship. It’s about allowing the people we call the “least of these” into our hearts, and being willing to be let into their hearts. And then we realize that we aren’t different after all. We are the same beloved children of a loving God.

I wasn’t sure what stories to share with you from a year’s worth of experiences. But after the Bishop Elect’s sermon yesterday, I want to talk to you about my own faith crisis. I signed up to be an Episcopal missionary because I was feeling unfulfilled in the work I was doing. I thought that somehow in becoming a missionary I would be zapped with extra special faith. That I would feel the presence of God with me all the time, and all I had to do was show up.

It didn’t take me long to realize that that wasn’t how it was going to work. And in the face of the corruption, hopelessness, and the evil that had come from the Civil War, my picture of God just wasn’t big enough to hold it all. I stopped going to church… I was a missionary who didn’t go to church. And I stopped praying. I would lay on my bed staring at the ceiling, defiantly daring God to show up. And all I felt was emptiness. I became depressed. I felt as though I had mistaken my calling. I felt unfulfilled just as I had felt in my jobs in the states. And I would have given up, if it wasn’t for all of you. You supported me financially and with prayer, and read my emails. I couldn’t bear to let you down, and I wanted to be the person you believed me to be.

A friend of mine emailed me some advice at that point. It was, “I know all you feel like is lying around, but that just makes it worse, you’ve got to get out and see where it is things are going right, where your passions are.” I didn’t want to listen to her, but the other way wasn’t working. I thought about it for some time, and realized that there were a lot of things that I loved about my life in Liberia.

I was an instructor teaching agriculture at a college, and I loved my students. I so valued the relationships and the respect that had grown between us. Their enthusiasm for learning was exciting to me. And I realized that even though I was completely unprepared to be a college lecturer (I hadn’t even known that that would be what I was doing), somehow the resources always showed up. Whether it was a book or a website or a good idea, it was always enough. And I finally saw that God was there.

I also loved the time I spent with my friends. We would visit each other’s houses in the evening or go to the local bar and watch the sunset under the palm trees, and we would talk for hours at a time, because that was all there was to do. And as we talked about it, the frustrating things of the day became funny. And God was there too.

I was able to go visit some villages near the university, and I so enjoyed talking to the women, and hearing their struggles, and what their lives were really like. And I could see God in them too.

I was surprised to realize how much of my life I was passionate about, but I didn’t know how to change things so that I could focus on the things I loved best. And then something happened to shake everything up. Some of the students staged a violent protest, and school was shut down for a month. Fellow teachers and I fled from our houses and from campus, on foot, a few miles away where we sought refuge with a friend for a couple nights. The violence only lasted a couple days, and the president of the country herself came to reconcile the two sides to each other. But what I realized was that while I was afraid, what I was most afraid of was being sent home. So with the month that we were out of school, I started to focus more of the things I loved best.

I ended up spending more time in a village called Melekie. I got to know the women’s group there, and they were remarkable. Melekie is a village of about 2,000 people which had no access to safe drinking water. One of the curses of poverty is that it can rob people of the belief that they can do anything to help themselves, but these women were different. With no resources, they had built a school building out of mud and sticks to serve as the facility for a skills training institute, because they believed that through skills the women would be able to lift themselves out of poverty and feed their children. But they had no money to buy the beginning supplies. We worked together on grant proposals, and they figured out how to make their program sustainable and prepared budgets. We were able to build the first latrine in Melekie, we got two wells drilled, and two more repaired, and we got the money they needed to start skills training in four areas. We accomplished a lot. But what was most important to me was the relationships. The women knew that this money wasn’t coming from some faceless benevolent source in the sky. It was coming from people who had heard their story, and were touched by it. People who cared about them, and wanted to help. And I was there on your behalf. And they were so excited, and they send their greatest thanks.

Another project I started working on was with my students. I had taught them about a tree whose leaves are essentially like a multi-vitamin, and it can be used to treat malnutrition and many diseases. The students were very excited about this tree, and they were passionate about development, but hadn’t gotten a chance to work on it. So we started a simple project, where the only cost was the seed. The students designed it. They chose ten communities near the school to plant pilot orchards, and then did 15 satellite orchards. They did all the work to engage and excite the communities, educate them on the uses and care of the trees, and assist with the actual labor. I got to go along and mostly stand aside and watch them shine. I was blown away. The same students I could barely get to do their homework the semester before, now they were dedicating their time and resources to volunteer. I was so inspired by them.

The last thing I did differently is I got more involved in the class I was teaching. I only had four students that semester, and I wasn’t taking it as seriously as I could. We were working on designing a cattle project, which is something I was supposed to have been working on all along. We would go out to the site, which was thick with jungle brush, and we cleared a path around the outside wielding machetes side by side, so that we could make a map and design the facilities. They taught me how to swing a machete, and I taught them how to use a protractor. And besides talking about business plans and improving livestock production, we talked about their dreams, their frustrations, the terror that they had experienced during the war. And we didn’t solve anything. But I for one felt completely different. I called them my boys, even though they were older than me. And they called me their fearless leader, even though I fainted the first time I used the machete. And we formed relationships that made it all worthwhile.

Not much had changed in terms of the circumstances between the first semester and the second semester, the same frustrations still existed, and yet everything had changed for me, because my attitude had changed. Finally I had opened myself. My expectations were not met, but the Spirit was there all the same, waiting for me to say yes.

Mission work will change your life. We are all called to mission work, out of our comfort zones, into the dark and scary places of our lives and of the world. Because it is in the dark and scary places that we finally are able to see that candle that Jesus lit in our hearts. It is in only in the very valley of the shadow of death, where everything else that distracts us falls away, and we realize that small flickering weak flame is the most important thing of all.

We are broken people living in a broken world. But how could there be miracles if we weren’t. God uses us, flawed as we are. Missionaries don’t have some extra special faith, we are just as broken as everybody else, but we said yes anyway.
What will you say “Yes” to? What will our Diocese say “Yes” to? The Bishop Elect said yesterday that we are working on building foundations, by listening and by acting. I hope that our Millennium Development Task Force will be part of that process, and that it will serve as a catalyst for each congregation to begin the process of discerning where they are called in mission, and where we are called as a Diocese. Because we are called to love and to go. To love God and each other, and to go out into the world and be the face and hands and heart of Christ in the world.

And to quote the Bishop Elect again, “Don’t call me Lord, and then not do what I say.” We are called out of fear into great joy.

I leave you with a quote from a song we sang yesterday, “Be not afraid, I go before you always, come, follow me.”

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Home Again



Well, my year in Liberia is now over, and I have returned to California.

For those of you who are from my sponsoring churches, thank you for your love and support. For those of you who have followed my emails, passed on to you from someone else, thank you for reading. Writing these updates has been a time of reflection for me each month, and I'm glad that so many of you found them meaningful too.

The transition back to "normal" life has been difficult. So thank you for your patience while I re-settle. I hope to start visiting the 8 churches that supported me in November. Hopefully by then I will know what I'm going to be doing next as well.

As I look back over all my emails from this year, one message rings out to me: On the other side of fear is an experience waiting to change your life and other's lives too. I won't call it an adventure, it's just life whether in the forests of West Africa or the suburbs of central California, there is fear and there is the wonder of moving beyond it. When traveling to Liberia I was afraid of what living in a post-war culture meant, I was afraid of failure, of making a fool of myself, of catching some strange illness… But after a while, I was too busy with my every day life to be afraid anymore. Perhaps it was the realization that even failure was better than nothing. And if God can make something wonderful out of all my feeble effort and failure, than maybe I should stop worrying about the outcomes, and concern myself with the doing and living.

May God richly bless you in all your struggles, and as you journey, wrap Her arms around you, drawing you ever closer to Her bosom.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

We Have Work to Do!



Last week I got to visit an orphanage in Gbarnga. My students and I are working on developing ten pilot Moringa orchards in communities near Cuttington. Once I am gone, the students will continue to monitor the orchards and advise the communities on the cultivation and use of Moringa to treat malnutrition, internal parasites, and much much more.

Last week we were planting at Felleta Children’s Village. There is no car road to their home, but when our truck pulled up half a mile away, the children saw us. Their happy voices echoed up to us from across the swamp, and they ran down the hill and across the rice paddies to greet us. They helped me carry the seedlings back up to the orphanage. The girls cradling them in their arms like a doll. One boy balanced his on top of his head with the biggest grin on his face. As we made our way across the planks which serve as bridges in the rice paddy, and up the hill I could hear the small girls talking behind me, “This is my tree, I’m gonna take care of it. I’m gonna give it water every day.” And a boy was saying, “We’ll be eating it, and climbing it!” I taught them how to plant the trees, and before I knew it, they were digging holes and planting trees like crazy. I was amazed to see even the small children join in like it was a fun game. They are such joyful children. It’s clear that their caretaker Samuel, who is a gentle soul, has had a very good influence on them. I wished I could spend more time with them, just being around them rubbed a lot of joy off on me.

I hesitated to tell you this story, happy orphans living in a mud brick house with dirt floors. Though it’s true, it certainly isn’t the bulk of my experience in Liberia. Just like every other place in the world, Liberia is a land of juxtaposition: joy and sorrow, wealth and poverty, frustration and elation. A few weeks ago I had to tell a student multiple times to put away his i-pod while we were doing a Moringa site assessment in a village. Last week I lost my temper with a student who was demanding I buy him books. I have been frustrated by corruption, disgusted by the common instances of what in the states we would call abuse and enslavement of women and children, and exasperated by the lack of justice. And at the same time I have been touched by the displays of affection between friends, impressed by the hospitality, dazzled by the bright colors and elaborate styles both in clothing and nature, amazed at the will and work by which people survive, and elated to find joy in the most unexpected places.

As I left the orphanage, I couldn’t help wondering what will become of the children. Will there be money to send them to high school? Family plays such an important role in this culture, will the other children and Samuel be as a family to them in the future? I don’t know, but what I do know is there is a lot of love in that mud brick house on the hill.

Orphanages are a relatively new phenomenon in Liberia. Before the war, orphaned children were mostly taken in by other family members, but the war left too many broken families, too many orphaned children, and too many people in dire need.

Everyone has a story about the war. My students have told me some of theirs: fleeing to live in a refugee camp in Guinea, walking for two weeks with no food, living for years in an internally displaced persons camp, working as security for the warlord Charles Taylor, seeing family members killed, and always narrowly escaping death.

It all sounds so foreign to our western ears, and yet, so much of the world has lived through coups and wars in this generation, a third of the world lives in abject poverty with no access to clean drinking water. Should we think of these things and feel guilty or blessed? Both attitudes just separate us from the suffering of the world. Both attitudes cause us to fear, and pray that such tragedy never befalls us. I know these attitudes because they have been my own in the past. But living in Liberia, and doing hurricane Katrina relief work has taught me that when the worst thing imaginable happens to people, when their deepest fears are realized, life still goes on, the community still exists, there is laughter and tears, there is work to do, an education to be had, food to cook, a house to build. Life goes on, and most importantly, Love abides. Just because our country is sheltered from much of the suffering of the world, does not mean that we escape it. If we can embrace that which we fear, reach out a hand, shed a tear, share a laugh… wouldn’t the world be a better place? Wouldn’t our lives be richer?

The other day I brushed the cobwebs off my bible, and opened it to James. “I by my works will show you my faith.” I don’t think doing good works is about getting into heaven, I think it’s about living into the best version of who we want to be, by letting go of fear to do, go, become, love!

It is up to all of us to change the world, there is no one else! In the words of my wise friend John, “Stop being afraid, we have work to do!”

Thursday, June 14, 2007

White Woman Working?


A few days ago I unintentionally caused quite a stir. I was up earlier than usual, and decided to enjoy the lovely cool morning, and do a little out-doors work. The short-cut that I walk often, through the overgrown field, and across the ditch, to Phebe compound was getting rather more overgrown than is pleasant to walk through, and the narrow plank which serves as a bridge over the ditch had become tipsy enough that it had almost pitched Mary, Martha, and I into the ditch on more than one occasion. So I got out my cutlass (machete), sharpened it, and headed out to do a little brushing. My students have taught me how to brush, and while my skill at it could be considered deplorable, I can at least reduce an overgrown area to a less overgrown area. I was a bit embarrassed at first, because people laugh at me just for carrying a cutlass or shovel, let alone using one. And I forgot that the shortcut is used by at least a hundred people. So I had to stop every few minutes to let someone pass by. They did laugh a lot, but they thanked me too. It is customary to thank someone who is working. It is a nice tradition. And as a person who was working, it was very encouraging to be appreciated (it counteracted the laughter a bit). It was also a nice change to be greeted with “thank you” instead of the more common “White woman! White woman!”. I also straitened out the bridge and stabilized it a bit. It was a good couple hours work, and I came away with several new blisters, and a cut from sharpening the cutlass (my technique leaves something to be desired). For the rest of the day, people were coming up to me saying “I heard you were working this morning” or “thank you for brushing”. They even stopped to tell friends of mine that I was working. Even days later I’m still getting comments from people who heard about it.

It is interesting to me that of all the projects and things I have been working on here, by far, the most appreciation I have received was for the simple task of clearing a path. Brushing is considered one of the lowliest tasks. College professors would certainly not brush. As “white woman! white woman!” I am automatically put in a different category. People expect us to ride around in air-conditioned cars, and eat “European food” and certainly never engage in manual labor. Mary, Martha, and I tend to challenge their stereotypes. We walk most places or cram ourselves into taxis. We shop for groceries at the local open-air market, and eat Liberian food. I tend to do manual labor from time to time. I think what is most surprising to people is the act of humbling oneself. Apparently by some of the things we do, we are making the statement, “I am not above joining you in this.” The power of that cannot be underestimated. The times when I have felt most connected with Liberians are times when we have worked alongside one another, or just sat together and watched the world go by. In these moments, we have been connected and our differences seem much smaller somehow. I regret that these times have been fewer than I intended.

Mother Teresa said, “The only way to learn humility is through humiliation.” Humility is something I have far from mastered. But I am starting to feel differently about it. I used to feel guilty that I wasn’t humble enough, and I thought that humility had to hurt somehow. But now I think that humility can be joyful. If we are willing to humiliate ourselves, we open ourselves to all sorts of meaningful experiences with other people. Through our humiliation we can connect with, and empower others. Through humiliation we can conquer fear, and barriers that divide people.
What if we did one thing a week, or even one thing a month, that stretched us outside our comfort zone, that made us feel foolish, that opened us up to the experience of another? Last year, on the “Day without Immigrants”, there wasn’t any demonstration scheduled in Atascadero, and I wanted to go downtown and hold a sign in support of immigrants, stage my own demonstration, but I was too afraid. I have wanted to go walk through the north side of Paso Robles, talk to strangers on the street, practice my Spanish, but I was too afraid. How many times have I walked past a person in a wheelchair, or a homeless person and not even looked at them, because I was too afraid. I believe that the more we practice doing things we are afraid of, the less scary things will be! When I was on the plane to Liberia, I was about as scared as I have ever been. I was pretty sure I had made a terrible mistake, that after all my talk, and everyone’s support, I wasn’t actually capable, and it was too late. But Liberia has been wonderful to me. The fear has been dissolved, replaced by love. My heart has been stretched to care about suffering around the world. And my old fears seem feeble in the face of all there is to gain in human relationships.

We don’t have time and energy to waste on fear, let’s get to work and see how it changes us!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Snapshots


Community members, my students and I, after finishing planting a moringa orchard at the Leprosy Rehab Village.


Mary and I's godchildren Clarence and Clarencia, who are twins. This is a picture in our living room, from a day they came over to play. I would like to nominate them for cutest children in the universe.

My animal production systems class on our last day of lecture. (Senkro, Morlu, me, Jojo, and Beyan)

Martha and I peeling and eating Mangos that had just been knocked from the tree, at our favorite local establishment. Mango season was May and part of June. Mango trees are absolutely everywhere here, we could eat ourselves sick on them every day! Except it turns out Martha's alergic to the outside, and Mary to the inside, so that left more for me!

My students and I take a field trip to visit a school that has a cattle program. (if you look very close you can see a cow in the background).

Martha, me, and Mary at a shrove tuesday party.

My godson Clarence and I, after his baptism


Myself, Martha, and Mary at an agriculture field day where we discovered a group of napping cows (cows are not common in Liberia)


The house on campus where Mary and I live


Mary and I find local icecream after watching Cuttington win a soccer match.


Me and Martha with our new tropical christmas trees

Sunday, May 20, 2007

May Update

I’m sitting with my computer on the couch, it’s a Sunday afternoon and there is no power, because power shuts down at 10am on Sundays. We just had some friends over for our traditional Sunday lunch of egg salad. Our fan stands idle by the window. The window has no glass in it, none of our windows do, so the occasional breeze can come in, shifting the heavy humid air. Beads of sweat are forming all over my face, but I wipe them away before they start to fall. A layer of clouds outside is promising rain. It’s been 48 hours since our last rain, which seems like too long. From my window I can see the neighbors palaver hut (not too different from a gazebo), a few cranberry hibiscus bushes I planted which have finally outgrown their nemesis: the mealy bug, a couple wild baby palm trees, my rain gauge: a graduated cylinder, acres of green grass and plants that blend into “the bush”, rubber plantations, and the forest beyond. It smells damp and green. Occasionally someone drives by on the red dirt road, or a mango falls to the ground, or the neighbors stir the soup they are cooking on a coal pot in the yard, but apart from that it’s silent. A peaceful, relaxing afternoon.

After 4 weeks of the school being shut down, classes resumed last week. It has been a frustrating month, not knowing what was going on, or why classes weren’t resuming. After the first couple days of unrest, the remainder of the month was utterly quiet. This last week of classes was quiet as well, with students slowly filtering back on campus, despite new requirements and long journeys. There were rumors of a second protest, but it didn’t materialize. It seems like the students are afraid now, just to speak their mind. Even the weekly assembly, a forum for students to gather and bring up issues, was canceled. Most of the students’ demands were met, and facilities were improved during the “compulsory break”, but it seems to me that the real issue behind it all was a lack of communication and rapport between the students and Administration, and that seems worse than ever. But it is wonderful to be back in class again. It makes me realize how much I missed the students. The students are eager to learn, and I had two great labs this week where I got to swing a cutlass (machete) alongside my students to clear brush, survey a field, plant trees, and mulch.

Lots of good things happened this month too: I became a godmother, my Moringa orchard got planted, I was able to get a thousand more Moringa seeds and some legume seeds I was looking for, I started implementing a safe drinking water grant I wrote back in October, the Lifewater crew came to drill the well that St. Andrews, Torrance sponsored, and I got to spend a day at a health and sanitation workshop in a village. Having more time gave me the chance to think up new projects, and I’m going to try to get some Moringa trees planted in nearby communities, and teach them about the benefits: Moringa can be used to treat malnutrition, clarify water, kill internal parasites, and much more!

In past updates I’ve shared some insight or talked about some idea I was struggling with. But today I’m hot, and sticky and relaxing on the couch, thinking of playing Frisbee with Martha and Mary or watching a movie on my computer, or going out for an ice cold glass bottle of coke, and not particularly inspired about anything. It’s good to have days like this too, to be content in spite of and because of it all. Perhaps that’s the peace which passes understanding!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Where is God?


Where is God in all this? A friend emailed me that question in light of Cuttington’s current crisis, and I realized I haven’t asked myself that in a long time. Sometimes that question is just too hard to answer, so I look at the easier questions: what’s going wrong, who is to blame, what do I do now, how do I distract myself. When I hear stories of the utter horror and loss of humanity that was Liberia’s civil war, when I see the destruction, when I come across corruption, when children and amputees ask me for money and I walk away, when I see young people fighting instead of talking, when hope for the future seems so far away… Where is God?

I’ve heard reports of a school shooting in Virginia, and I know that that must be at the front of everyone’s minds. Tragic events like these break through that barrier we think we have between the violence and suffering that plague the rest of the world, and us. We believe that these things aren’t supposed to happen, so where is God in all this? When tragedy strikes, we reach out to other people, we care, we come together… but we also get scared. We look for where we can assign blame, and so many times we forget that we are not alone in suffering. We care most about those who are closest to us; I understand that. But we miss so much when we close our hearts to the rest of the world. In January more than 100 union demonstrators were killed by their government in Guinea. The demonstrators were standing up against the corruption of their government (ranked the most corrupt in Africa). The people of Guinea are becoming united against their government, and most likely moving toward a coup. I’m sure Guinea wasn’t on the US news. When I first got here, a Liberian I was talking to was shocked that I didn’t hear that the presidential mansion had caught on fire. “But we get all of your news, you mean you don’t hear about what’s going on here?” I didn’t have the heart to admit I didn’t even hear about Liberia’s war when it was raging just over 3 years ago. In the states, when you do hear about the suffering in Africa, it seems so distant almost not real. And Virginia Tech seems very far away to me too. But perhaps when we speak the language of suffering we will understand one another. Where is God in all of this?

The last few days at Cuttington have been a mixture of scary, sad, and hopeful. The students staged what they claimed was a non-violent boycott of classes on Monday, to bring attention to the grievances they had against the administration. It began by a group of chanting male students, driving all students and teachers from classrooms, and not allowing them to re-enter. The female student leaders had not wanted the boycott, but the men went ahead. The tension on campus continued to escalate as both students and the administration issued demands and a forum for dialogue could not be agreed on. The students blocked entrances to the school, and threatened to break down the generator. The students concerns are valid, having to do with services they are paying for but not receiving, but their methods got out of control. In what seemed to be a moment of panic on the second day, the President of the University, issued a memo declaring that the school be closed indefinitely, and the dorms be vacated. None of the administrators made this announcement to the student body because they did not believe the situation to be safe. A mob of students began throwing stones at official vehicles, and all administrators’ vehicles fled across a field to escape campus (all the roads were blocked). All the ex-pats were asked to evacuate campus, so we packed our bags, and left via footpaths to avoid the roadblocks. We sought refuge with friends at the Phebe Hospital Compound, about a mile from campus. They call it “running” when they talk about the war, “when we had to run”. As Mary and I walked through an overgrown field, and across a stream, pursued part way by jeering students, with all our valuables on our backs, I thought to myself how unreal it was that I was running. Running from students I know and love and do not fear. Jumping from a ship that I couldn’t believe was sinking. None of it made sense. We were in classes last week, and everything seemed fine… how could all that be snatched away so fast? Where was God in all of that?

Mary and I were greeted warmly by our friends. We waited, and slowly the other six Americans arrived. We passed the evening talking, sometimes laughing. Several of my students called to check that I was safe. We got the news that the president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (affectionately known as Ma Ellen), was herself coming to meet with the two sides in the morning. So Wednesday we all got up and headed back to campus. The men in our group were called to meet with the President of the University, to discuss the situation. The rest of us waited in the chapel for a couple hours with the students. Packed into the building like sardines, we could feel the energy and tension as though it were waves and all of us were the ocean. Waves crashed down as riot police and a huge caravan of UN troops arrived, and as troops marched in with metal detectors to secure the area. Finally the music director started playing songs on a keyboard, and the music calmed the waves. There was God!

Ma Ellen had a big task on her shoulders. She is so loved and respected here, I had high hopes, but it seemed like it was going to take a real miracle to change things. I have seen female politicians and scientists in the US, who have had to fight for every rung of the ladder they climbed, and in joining the “man’s world” they had to adopt a certain amount of cold aggression. I expected to see that, especially since women are given so little authority here. But Ma Ellen was the picture of a loving African matriarch. Refreshingly feminine, and very much in charge, it felt to me like she was reconciling two children who had had a fight. Without undermining either party’s authority or belittling their concerns, she managed to put the bigger picture back in focus, re-open dialogue, and restore peace. The dorms will remain open while dialogue continues (eliminating the need for a military forced evacuation), and academic activity will be suspended until an agreement can be reached. Ma Ellen said that the government would pay for the dorms to remain open, and in return the students would agree to stop their protest activities, understanding that any perpetrators of violence will be dealt with by the government. An agreement has not yet been reached, we expect to be out of school until the middle of next week at least, but we are home on campus again, and safe to resume life as usual. Our housekeeper asked when we got back from the meeting, “Did the woman come make everything alright?” Yes, the woman did. There was God!

When I think of it, it’s easy to see God in Ma Ellen, in the music director, in my students calling to check on me, in the camaraderie of friends during our one night of exile, in the student body president’s apology. But God isn’t just in the stuff that’s easy to see. If I think about it hard, God was in the jungle smell of the fresh green overgrown field we “escaped” through. God was in the sense of calm I felt, even when I was scared or sad. God was in the beating of every heart, whether in fear or excitement. And If I think about it even harder, God is in everything, everywhere, all the time… we are all the pieces of God woven together into a vibrant ever changing awe inspiring terrible wonderful creation.

Until today I have been afraid to ask, “where is God?” because I was afraid that I wouldn’t see God anymore. What other questions are we afraid to ask? What answers are we afraid to see?

Yesterday I heard the assembly of students sing the Liberian national anthem in the presence of their President, who came to spark reconciliation when others were afraid. “… the home of glorious liberty by God’s command!” How many times has that promise been broken? How many oppressive regimes have stolen the liberty of Liberians? And yet they sing. Yesterday I was privileged to sing along.

May the answers to difficult questions enrich our lives, and lead us ever outward, into the world.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Mission


This Sunday is World Mission Sunday in the Episcopal Church, which has gotten me thinking about what mission means to me now.

I just turned in my final grades for the semester. Today I had to tell a student that she failed my class, despite the extra effort she has made to bring up her grade. With an F on her report card, her sponsor will most likely stop sponsoring her college education. She sat on my porch and cried. Another student came by to collect a book which I promised as a prize to the high grade in the class. He was so excited he was dancing around. He took the book and said he was going to be a veterinarian. That hadn’t been his dream before taking my Animal Husbandry lab. I am so proud of the effort some of my students have made, and for the ones who tried and failed, my heart hurts for them. I never set out to be a teacher, but I made it through the semester. The students learned something, and I learned a lot.

I thought, when choosing this path, that being an agricultural missionary would somehow feel different than “normal life”. That I would be constantly aware of God’s presence in the world around me, that I would feel inspired and fulfilled. But one thing I have learned is that life is just life. There are good jobs and bad jobs, fulfillment, and searching, regardless of the continent you happen to be on.

I am learning many lessons, not the lessons I expected, but I guess we rarely learn what we expect. I’m getting better at saying no. I’m getting more confident. I’m learning how to not be busy in the face of too many things to do. And most of all, I’m learning that God is Love. When I fail all day long, and feel discouraged and empty, I am refilled by the love of and for my friends. My friends have been the love of God to me, the real presence of that love, and I have felt Love growing in my own heart.

Liberia is a difficult place. There are no ATMs or credit cards, no telephone lines, no public utilities. There is no Mexican food, or salad bar. Everywhere you look there is poverty and need. There are children who are dirty and naked and hungry. There is so much hardship, corruption, abuse, disease, and death. One in every five children, born alive, die before reaching the age of five. Infant and mother mortality remains one of the highest in the world. Everyone suffers from the trauma the war inflicted on them. And yet there are bright colors, music, and laughter. Children play with hoops and balls, and build toys out of garbage. People just keep living. My students wear trendy jeans and drink beer, and study or avoid studying, just like college students anywhere. Life goes on.

I embarked on this mission thinking that I was going to encounter and serve “the other”. It was hard for me to imagine Liberia feeling like home. But Liberia does feel like home. And far from encountering “the other”, I have found that there is no other. We come from different cultures, we express ourselves in different ways, we have different complexions, but we are one people, we share the human experience of life, of struggle of pain of joy of love.

Mission is dangerous work, and I don’t mean physically. I feel like part of myself had been sleeping my whole life, but now it is awake, and there is no going back. When you step out of your comfort zone, when you allow yourself to look into the face of that which you call “other”. You may just see a mirror instead. Never again will I hear the phrase “starving children in Africa” and write it off as a cliché. Never again will I see the children in a “save the children” commercial as anything less than my neighbor’s child, or my friend’s child, or any child anywhere whether they are naked or clothed, abandoned or well loved. Never again will I value the life of an American above all others. The danger then is that my heart has been opened to love and ache for that which I cannot change. Even while I am here in Liberia, there is so little I can do to alleviate suffering. But my heart tells me that being open to love, even when it seems that love will only be grief, loving is what is important. Every day it seems I fail at this, every day I loose focus, or get discouraged, but there is no absence of love in my life, and that makes all the difference.

We are not all called to far away lands, but we are all called to Love. To take the dangerous path, to look at that which we fear, and choose to love instead.
May the peace and fire of Love be with you,

Friday, January 19, 2007

Joy Amidst Ruins


Some friends and I traveled up-country to Zorzor, to spend New Year's with a friend who helps run a small hospital. Zorzor is in Lofa county, which was one of the areas most destroyed during Liberia's Civil War. We traveled three hours down a bumpy red dust road to get there. As you walk through the dirt streets of Zorzor you can see that it once had nice buildings and businesses, you see steps and foundations, sometimes half crumbled walls peppered with bullet holes. And in these ruins people have remade their homes. The traditional mud, stick, and thatch houses are built in-between and on top of the ruins. Small businesses or homes have been made in bombed out buildings even if they have no roof. But all of that is just the backdrop on which Zorzor is painted. Within that canvas, life goes on. The town teems with activity, people, and bright colors. As we walked through the streets on our way to church on Sunday morning, we were greeted enthusiastically by people along the road. One of my students ran up to us to say hello, so proud that I had come to his home town. I wanted to tell him how much I liked Zorzor, but I couldn't think of the right words to use, because we generally comment on the "niceness" or beauty of a town. The beauty of Zorzor is in the people, and it positively glows.

In church I saw more enthusiasm, and joyfulness than I have yet encountered in Liberia. We were crowded into the only part of the church that had been re-roofed, but they still found room for dancing. During announcements one man stood up to say that he and his wife had been in exile in a neighboring country since the war, and they had just moved home. When he shouted "Praise the Lord" we all shouted, "Amen!" The rhythm of the drum and shakers and the chanting, wailing, joyful sound of the music in the local language, flowed into each of us. The lady in front of me had a baby tied to her back (as is the custom here). The baby slept soundly as her mother danced and clapped, and a very small child standing just outside the door, was swaying to the rhythm. The same rhythm we were all experiencing and joining in, connected us. It was worship and community, joy, frustration, hope, longing. It couldn't be ignored, it was impossible to keep from joining in the stamping and the clapping and the swaying.

At 9:00 at night, we walked back to church for the New Year's eve "watch night service" which is the biggest attended service of the year. The town looked so different by the light of the moon and a few generator powered light bulbs. Everything looked softer, more lived in, less pock marked by bullet holes. The church was already full of people dancing and singing. When they saw us the crowd opened so we could be led to the seats they had saved for us. All the children were in the back of the church dancing, and they came running up to touch our skin, and squeal with laughter. The sanctuary was loosely defined by the crumbling walls, and the ceiling was the night sky. When the music and dancing paused for testimonies or sermons, the speakers had to compete with the boom boxes blaring just across the street, but when the congregation started singing, there was nothing that could compete with it. For the last ten minutes before midnight, we sat in silent prayer. It was a powerful contrast, silence isn't something you find much of around here. Then they rang the bell (an empty propane tank) 12 times, (only someone miscounted and it was 13). Everyone lit candles and processed around the town, chanting and doing a shuffling sort of dance. There was so much hugging, I was amazed that no one's head tie or shirt caught on fire. The pastor warned us before we headed out that the Catholics and Pentecostals would also be processing with candles, and that they were our friends, so if we noticed that any of them had a small fire on them, we should put it out.

My time in Zorzor was peaceful, and joyful. I saw people working together; I saw progress being made. It strengthened me for my return to teaching after the break. I feel like Zorzor has changed me, and I hope that if I look the right way, I can see that same joy other places too.

I hope that the new year brings you more than the post-holiday let down, dieting, and resolutions. I hope that you too will be struck by the abundant joy that can be found in what seems like the most unlikely of places. That's epiphany!