Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent Conspiracy

To me, the season of Advent in the church was always an exciting one, when we began to sing Christmas hymns, the traditional wreath appeared with its four small and one large candles, and the altar cloth changed to a deep, beautiful purple. At home, the flurry of constant baking begun, frequent (and secret) trips to the store were made, and we hung the lights outside our home. The world became a little bit brighter and warmer as the town lit up with color and holiday festivities. But for the most part, I don't think it truly captured the excitement and expectancy of waiting for the Savior.

This year at my church in Alabama, we are participating in a global movement called Advent Conspiracy. During the four weeks of Advent, the time of preparation leading up to the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, we are focusing on four areas.


1. Worshiping Fully
2. Spending Less
3. Giving More
4. Loving All

These might seem fairly basic, and they are. But how many of us actually commit to living out these four principles of our faith, especially during the most joyous season of the year? The goal of these few weeks of Advent is to capture the contagious joy of Christ's coming by looking beyond the glitter and candy to see the reason for the season.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Pastor Rusty used this example in his sermon two weeks ago: What if Mercedes-Benz told everyone at Christmas not to buy any cars from them, but to go and give their money away? How earth-shattering would that be? Think of the huge impact a decision like that could have on the global water crisis, world poverty, or homelessness? We all know that won't happen, but maybe it could happen, in our own family, church, or community.

It's like in Miracle on 34th Street, when Macy's decides to follow Santa's example and actually encourages customers to shop at another store with a better deal. If, for just a second, we could take the focus off ourselves and realize that WE are the answer to our prayers to end world hunger, the Ebola crisis, human trafficking, how powerful would that be? God has given many of us the resources. Now we must choose to use them for good.

Jesus was all about giving, not just his time and resources, but also sharing the Good News. God is love. The Savior has come. There is hope. If only you take up your cross and follow me. He never lost sight of the target - to transform lives with His love. This year I want to let go of the fake, shiny holiday Christmas has become. Instead of extravagant consumption, shouldn't it really be about extravagant love anyway?

With my co-conspirators at Cornerstone Church, I am conspiring to follow Jesus. We are making this Christmas different. Not only by focusing less on the material, but by giving more of myself to God. Worshiping fully. Taking time to adore the incredible God who chose to come to Earth as a baby in a manger. And loving everyone. Not just those around me, but neighbors and strangers and those who maybe don't have anymore to spend Christmas with.

As we wait in anticipation for the Redeemer of the world to come, let us shine his light in all the world, especially in those dark corners, just as Christ did.

May the joy of Christmas be with you throughout this season!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Reblogged: Challenged Accepted

November and December have been busy months for us at ARM. This fall, I have attended several conferences and career fairs to let other know what we are up to in rural Alabama. I spoke to college students, youth ministers, and pastors at these various functions about the possibility of serving with Alabama Rural Ministry this coming summer, either as Summer Staff or a Mission Team. Although the bread and butter of our ministry takes place in the summer, fall and spring are very busy times for us for promoting our mission and service opportunities to churches in Alabama and throughout the Southeast.

At the National Youth Worker's Convention in Atlanta, we set up a mini-house to represent our work with families in the area of home repair. As a way to engage people walking through the exhibit hall, we set up the "Take a Swing!" hammer challenge: those who could drive a nail into the 2x4 in one swing won a prize. This proved to be a fun and original method of sharing about our work.

Lisa and Joe at Youth Specialties in Atlanta
At NEXT UMC, a creative conference for campus ministers and college students to "Dream, Go, and Do", I spent two days on my feet talking to folks about ARM's vision and ministry. During this weekend, I also had the wonderful opportunity to reconnect with some of my YAM (Young Adult Missionary) partners in mission.

With US-2's Connor and Stephanie at NEXT
Below I am re-blogging a post from my good friend Dave Johnson, who shares about our experience in Denver:

Challenge Accepted

Over November 7-9, 2014, a few of us Young Adult Missionaries traveled to Denver, CO for Imagine What’s NEXT. Through music, messages, conversations, and fun, this UMC gathering gave college students, and folks from agencies and organizations, time and space to connect, worship, and consider opportunities for service and vocation.

On Saturday evening, we were issued the $5 Challenge. As we departed for dinner and evening worship downtown, the organizers gave each participant $5 cash. We were not to keep this, but to use it to make the biggest impact possible in downtown Denver. They gave a number of ideas like buying a package of socks to give away, treating someone to dinner, or buying a bus pass for someone. They encouraged us to take pictures of our experiences and post them on social media with the hashtag “#5challenge.”

YAMS reunite in Denver!
As for the missionaries, the gears in our minds were spinning. Personally, I had just given a talk earlier in the day, and one of my points was an old standard at Church and Society: we often fail to make the distinction between acts of charity – temporary assistance for urgent needs – and justice – lasting transformation aimed at God’s Kingdom. God calls us to both through our lives of faith (Micah 6:8, Matt 23:23), but we often focus our ministries on charity. For us, the $5 Challenge was to think and act outside the box and do something a little closer to justice.

An idea budded and blossomed during break time: what if we bought sidewalk chalk and wrote messages of inspiration, encouragement, advocacy, and awareness on the streets of Denver? We ran with it. After dinner, we fortunately came upon an office supplies store 5 minutes before close (yes, we were those annoying customers). Six of us went in and spent $3 on 3 packs of chalk. We hit the streets.

Before our eyes, the results multiplied like fishes and loaves blessed by God. People read our notes as they walked by, some engaging us in conversation. Some people wanted to write words of wisdom and inspiration for themselves, so we gave them chalk to take with them on their own journeys. We tagged each of our notes “#NEXT14″ so that socially-networked passers-by might go online and see what else we were up to at the conference.

I like to think that people’s lives were changed, even just a little, by our “street tweets” – that someone would know that Christians carry messages of hope as well as challenge – that another might grow in their awareness that all people are valuable and treasured – that yet another would come to realize we were created to be alive and vital. A few strategic and beautiful words, bathed in the power of the Spirit, have the power to transform lives forever.

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ –Luke 19:39-40

10325128_10202329577576577_4655090294365124033_nDave Johnson
General Board of Church and Society
Washington, DC
US-2, Class of 2013-2015
Advance #3021860

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Give Some Love on Giving Tuesday!

Hi friends,

    In just a few short weeks, Global Ministries will be participating in UMC #GivingTuesday. On December 2, 2014, all the donations you make to Global Ministries missionaries and Advance projects will be matched up to $1 million! This is an excellent opportunity to support the Methodist Church and further the work that organizations and projects are doing to transform lives through God's love around the world.

     With Christmas quickly approaching, we are all looking for that perfect gift for our family member or loved ones. Giving Tuesday is a way to extend the spirit of giving in the Advent season beyond just buying physical gifts.

     Donating to my organization, Alabama Rural Ministry, gives hope to families in Alabama whose houses need repaired. With your support, teams will work with these families to patch the roof, seal windows, or put up siding on their home. The cold winter no longer seems so hopeless.

    Donating to my missionary fund here will support current and future Global Mission Fellows (like me!) in the Generation Transformation program. You can help make it possible for a young adult to become a missionary and transform the world working with local churches, immigrants, campus ministry, children's programs, and more.

     Make your donation any time from 12:00AM to 11:59PM on December 2nd. You can click the picture at the top of my blog to support me, or go to to find a project. Watch this video to hear missionaries' stories about #GivingTuesday:

     Please pray that people all around the globe choose to support Global Ministries on December 2nd. The United Methodist Church needs your help, so that we can more effectively serve the Lord by serving others. This is your opportunity to connect with those doing mission - so go, and be the church!



Thursday, November 6, 2014

As the Potter Does

For five weeks now, I have been taking a beginner's pottery class. From the first moment I slapped the clay down onto the wheel, I knew it was something special. I had never really enjoyed art class in high school, and my drawing skills are about on par with a kindergartener. But pottery was different. The feeling of the clay in my hands, smoothing it, molding it into the shape that I wanted, mesmerized me.

I enjoy the methodical approach my instructor used to teach us the basics. First, center the clay on the wheel. Then, press it down, thumbs crossed, and poke the hole. Next is the "claw", as my instructor affectionately calls it. Then smoothing the lip, followed by a pull to make the clay rise. Every step has a technique, and only practice makes perfect. 

Molding the clay into the shape I want is harder than it looks. I crushed my share of pots before making a decent one. More often than not, I end up surprising myself with the end result, and a bowl appears where I intended a mug. What I lack is knowledge of how to control the clay. I'm learning how it feels, but I still don't understand how to make it do what I want.

Today as I sat at the wheel, trying hard to keep my arms on my legs, I was reminded of the passage in Jeremiah 18 that speaks of the potter. Jeremiah says, "So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him." (It's amazing to think that potters and wheels existed back then, isn't it??) The Lord replied, "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does? Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel."

 Just as my pots sometimes collapse or become deformed and I must either reshape the clay or start over, God has the authority to mold us as God chooses. He has given us the gift of free will, and we don't always follow the paths God has laid out for us. When we stray from God's intended path, or make a decision that goes against God's desires for us, God can either mold us into something new, or destroy us.

So, who is really in control? Us or God? Many of us, myself included, tend to be "control freaks". We don't want anyone else ordering us around or barging in to tell us how to live our lives. We have each day planned out, down to the hour. But here's the freaky thing: we're not really in control! God is. As much as we like to be captain of the ship, we need to hand over the wheel to the one who truly knows us. And let God do as the potter does, and shape us into who we are designed to be.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Where Technology is Lacking

Recently I read a post on a friend's Facebook page:

My Childhood Was Like This:
I didn't have Blackberry, Wii, Playstation, or XBox.
I played hide-and-go seek, and football in the street.
The time for me to go back home was the hour it got dark,
And my mom didn't call my cellphone, but yelled: "Inside!"

Who do you think wrote this?

The answer is actually a friend of mine from rural Ecuador, but in many aspects my childhood was similar. Although when I was in middle school, we got a GameCube, growing up my brother and sister and I always played outside. We jumped on the trampoline, ran around the house shooting super-soakers at each other, and went on adventures in the woods.

I find it sad to see so many young kids these days standing in line with their parents, playing games on their iPad or phone, instead of inventing or imagining. Whatever happened to laundry basket "time machines", pirate battles in the barn, or picking raspberries in the backyard? The following video, titled "Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?" challenges the way we think about technology in today's society. Take a look:

I remember when I returned to the U.S. in January, being shocked to see iPads at the airport fast food restaurants to order food. I stood there for about 5 minutes, waiting to be helped, when a woman told me to type in my order on the screen. I followed her instructions to get my egg roll, while silently wondering if in 20 years the world would be run by robots.

Now there is nothing innately wrong with advancing technology. In fact, it helps our day-to-day tasks go much smoother and faster than 50 years ago. Examples: microwaves, Excel, graphing calculators, email. However, as Prince Ea articulates in the video above, we as a society are becoming more and more disconnected from real relationships. Instead of going to get coffee with a friend, we opt for Skype dates. Kids are staying inside playing video games rather than physically exert themselves playing basketball or tag.

While I admit that connecting with friends in the U.S. through Facebook was great while I lived abroad, and still allows me to communicate with people I know all over the world, chat windows and videos take away from the sense of community that comes with personal face-to-face interaction. God created us to be in relationship with one another: to help one another, to share with one another, to love one another.

So, I'm not necessarily propagating that everyone shut down their social media accounts. But what I am proposing is that each day, even for an hour, we take the time to unplug and have genuine conversations with real people. Without checking our phones every two minutes. Because who is more important than the person you're with at that moment?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Beauty of Change

As the season of fall begins to take shape in Alabama, I feel an indescribable joy fluttering inside myself. That simple contentment that comes from looking outside the window to see red, yellow, and brown leaves fluttering in the wind and to cozy up in my living room chair with a warm cup of pumpkin chai. I've been away from the U.S. so long I have almost forgotten the beauty of the changing seasons.

fall foliage contrast color

In Ecuador, there were two seasons: rainy and dry. You can probably guess what defined the two periods. During rainy season the days were wet and mucky, and it drizzled at least once a day. In the dry season, high winds swept through my little town, picking up dust and blasting cold into my apartment. There were many wonderful things about the climate in Ecuador, but I missed those special moments, like trees shedding their leaves or the first flowers peeking out from under the frost in spring.

 fall autumn leaves

A friend and mentor once told me: live your life in seasons. Don't worry so much about the distant future or try to plan your whole life out, but take it one season at a time. One season at a time. The metaphor stuck with me, and ever since that conversation in my last year of college, I have thought of my life in that way. I haven't chosen one career or scored the job that makes big bucks. But I have chosen a path for this season of my life. I chose to be a missionary, because that is what God called me to for now. I might not do it forever, in fact I really don't know what I'll be doing at this time next year, but God has a plan.

So while the cool winds blow through, and the temperature drops, I encourage you to embrace the change. Instead of complaining about the colder weather, see the beauty in it. As a wise man says in Ecclesiastes 3, "There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven." 

Be blessed in this lovely fall season.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Reblogged: Advocating for Alabamians

The following post is a blog I wrote for ARM's website a few days ago, sharing about my participation in the annual Alabama Arise meeting a week ago. 

Did you know?
  • Alabama is one of only 4 states with no state-level minimum wage?
Did you know?
  • Payday lenders in Alabama can charge up to 456% interest on loans?
Did you know?
  • Annual electricity costs in Alabama were the 2nd highest in the nation in 2011?
Did you know?
  • Alabama currently has a shortage of about 90,000 housing units?
At the Arise Citizens’ Policy Project meeting last Saturday in Montgomery, we voted to make “Dedicated Revenue for the Alabama Housing Trust Fund” a priority in legislation for 2015. Lobbyists will try to get a bill passed that will provide $20 million per year to create and rehabilitate homes for those in need. We also voted to support a bill that would cap payday loans at 36% statewide. These, among many other concerns, are issues that Alabama Arise addresses in their work with legislators, in order to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians.

Arise Citizens’ Policy Project is a coalition of non-profit organizations, churches, and individuals in Alabama that advocates for the poor by promoting legislation that benefits low-income families and individuals statewide. The issues that ACPP focuses on include improving public housing, reducing loan interest fees, raising the minimum wage, reducing utility costs, and prison reform. ACPP uses lobbyists to educate Senators and Representatives on these important issues that affect Alabamians. ACPP is a sister organization to Arise Alabama, an advocacy organization with the same goals and members.

Alabama Rural Ministry is proud to call itself a member of Alabama Arise. Much of our work with families living in rural areas addresses these same issues of poverty: lack of ideal housing and economic resources. It is our hope that through our work of repairing homes, building relationships, and providing children with safe and enriching educational opportunities, we can take an active role in combating poverty in Alabama.

It was such a privilege to attend the ACCP meeting and to witness the dedication of this organization to champion basic human rights for all Alabamians. I am inspired to do more in my community and my work here, so that together we might achieve this goal.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

T-Shirts and To-Go Cups

A Challenging Look at Waste and Instant Gratification in America 

Today’s culture is one of to-go cups and T-shirts. We make cool T-shirts for every volunteer day, event, and mission trip that we go on or group that we are in. Stop the Violence campaign, National Honor Society, First Presbyterian Church, Methodist SWAG Day, Fill-in-the-Blank 5K Run, etc. We run to Starbucks to grab that latte, then trash the paper cup half an hour later. What's wrong with this story? you may ask.

Managing our Money

While T-shirts can be a great means of publicity, there is also a great deal of waste involved, financial and otherwise. First: think about all the money that goes into buying these shirts, largely for the same groups of people who received them last year, or maybe already have 25 T-shirts laying around in their closet at home. Couldn't that money go to support something bigger, a more valuable cause? Yet people will without a second thought write a check for $10 to get the official group T-shirt. It has become almost an unspoken expectation of every organization, college group, or community event in this country.

What to do with the leftovers?

Second: what about the material waste? And by that I mean, when the so-called event is over, where do all the extra T-shirts go? The organization, smart and prepared as it may be, has taken the initiative to order ahead and estimate the number of shirts that would be needed. No one would want to have to wait another week for that custom design. No one would be able to go without. No one could make do with the wrong size. No is just not an option here, in my society. Unfortunately, that “no one” means that organizations like mine, which are doing awesome work, have to spend extra money and prepare for those who we expect to serve with us. And when they don’t come…now, what do we do with all of these leftovers?


Undermining cultural values

Every year thousands of organizations are left with “extra” shirts that don't get used. Where do these shirts go? Of course it wouldn't be acceptable to make ourselves wear a shirt that was from last year (gasp!), so they either get thrown out, sent to Goodwill, or shipped to Africa. Kids in Rwanda may be wearing that tossed-out VBS shirt from 2010 that no one here wanted anymore. Do they care what the shirt says? Or even know? Probably not. But it gives me a weird, unsettled feeling. Like other people, who are worth less, are receiving our trash with eagerness. I can't count the number of times I saw people in Ecuador sporting U.S. Army hats, Chicago Bulls shirts, or New York sweatshirts. And they did not express shame or sadness for wearing these clothes. They were thankful to just have a shirt to wear, regardless of the lettering. Yet are we undermining the values of their culture by throwing our waste at them with a smile on our face? And it is really our role to define what needs a culture or community has? Here is a great article about how first-world charities with good intentions often do more harm than good.

Give it to me right now!

As for the coffee, we as a society have become obsessed with the idea of instant, to-go, or ready-made products. We just don’t have time to cook or prepare things ourselves. Now I’m talking about time, and how we often waste culture and relationships because we put work or other duties first. There is something special, in my mind, about sitting down to drink a cup of coffee in a real mug. Not only does it feel more genuine, but the fact that you took the time to brew that dark roast yourself, maybe with a friend, shows that you have taken a breather, time to reflect on life, if only for 20 minutes of your morning. So often we insist on having things right now. God’s timing doesn’t work that way last time I checked, and neither does the rest of the world.

Disposable things and people

And let’s not forget how many Styrofoam cups and plastic bags are already going into landfills daily in the U.S. alone. Every time I think about it, it scares me a little more. This summer, every youth group that came to Tuskegee on a mission trip used plastic ware all week. Why? They didn't want to wash all the dishes. We as a culture need to begin thinking long-term, permanent, renewable. It has become so easy to buy a product and throw it away when we are finished with it. This is also true in relationships. With many people moving across the country often for job opportunities and other reasons, friendships are hard to maintain. The divorce rate in our nation is now higher than ever: 53% of marriages now end in divorce. When did relationships become so disposable?


All of that being said, I do not think t-shirts are inherently a bad idea. At ARM, we save our extra shirts from every event to sell later in the year as an additional fundraiser for our ministry, which ultimately goes to help low-income families in Alabama. That intention in itself is a good thing. But we must be careful of allowing ourselves, especially as Christians, to be influenced by the general culture that rules our society. It may seem overwhelming trying to figure out how to take that small step in conserving resources, or taking the time to make things yourself, when they are so easily available elsewhere. Below I have compiled a few ideas to chew on, that I hope you will consider.   

How can I become a more socially conscious consumer?
  • If your organization frequently purchases T-shirts, try buying from a local company that makes their shirts here in the U.S., instead of possibly supporting child labor in China.
  • Think of ways to decrease your annual clothing consumption. Maybe this means making do with a smaller wardrobe, or buying a few essential pieces instead of splurging on those hot new heels or cute headband (yes, I am guilty of this, too).
What are some ways in which I can decrease my carbon footprint?
  • Increase purchase of reusable items, and try not to buy one-time use items like paper cups or plastic silverware.       
  • Decide to be okay with having less. Owning more junk means more stress anyway!

How can I think about others when I make daily decisions?
  • Read the book Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson. Understand your purchasing power. With great power comes great responsibility.
  • Everything we consume is made and processed by someone, somewhere. We have become so distanced from the actual hands that created the product. Take a minute to pray for the person and the work that contributed to your enjoyment of that new pair of headphones. 

For everyone who made it to the bottom of this post, thank you! I hope that amidst my ramblings, you were able to see the heart behind these seemingly radical ideas. As I continue to adjust to being back in the U.S., I am trying to challenge myself to enjoy some of the awesome privileges of living here, while at the same time not falling into complacency. I am trying my best to live a life of non-conformity and justice, and to think about how I can participate in bringing about God's kingdom for all people.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Day at ARM

Now that the summer is over, my work responsibilities have changed. I am no longer working with kids at day camp every day, but instead go to the office to answer phone calls, visit families, promote the organization, and brainstorm ideas to make our ministry more effective. My official title is Outreach Coordinator, although I do a lot of everything.

My main role right now is casework and family visits, specifically to help homeowners apply and qualify for grants through the USDA that would help cover the cost of repairing their home. Having worked with these grants for several months, I am now the resident expert and have been given the opportunity to train volunteers from a local United Methodist Church that is interested in assisting the full-time staff with the grant process. It is exciting feeling confident in this area of my work, and to be able to share that knowledge with others to ultimately help more families.

The grant process, like much social work, is not really hard, just tedious and time-consuming. Families often become overwhelmed by the "big packet", so we go and help them make sense of it all. Having a social work background, I feel right at home doing these visits and filling out paperwork. But more than that, I have been personally touched by my interactions with some of the homeowners I have visited. These individuals, many of them elderly, are so kind and welcoming, even to a stranger (myself), who is new to the organization and community. Time after time, I have experienced a joy simply from spending time with these individuals.

Take Ms. Wilson, for example. The first time I went to see her, she answered the door and warily asked who was there. The construction coordinator and I explained to her that we had called about taking a look at her home and starting the grant process to do some repairs. She opened the door and hesitantly led us into the kitchen. The entire visit, Ms. Wilson eyed us carefully, and though she answered our questions, I could see the doubt in her eyes. She was used to not being able to trust people.

Four months later, I visited Ms. Wilson again, this time to help her finish the "big packet" to qualify for the grant. She smiled when I came to the door, and right away offered me a seat at her kitchen table. The whole time we were sitting together, she laughed and made jokes. At the end we prayed together, and she said, "Thank you. That was just what I needed." As I left she commented that next time she would have to make a pie to share with me. What just happened? I thought.

Somehow between these two visits, Ms. Wilson's view of us transformed. Whether it was the persistent phone calls or diligence to quickly complete her paperwork, I don't know. But what I do know is that my job here at ARM as a missionary is not just the forms, the emails, or the phone messages. It's building relationships. Connecting with people. Engaging communities. Inviting them to be a part of the work we do.

When I'm not visiting families or filling out grant paperwork, I'm usually answering phone calls, coordinating upcoming events like Make a Difference Day, or working on our bimonthly e-newsletter (send me your email if you'd like to subscribe). I've also been able to get to know some of our new staff! I have thoroughly enjoyed these past two months. I'm getting into the swing of things here, understanding and taking ownership of what ARM stands for, and actively participating in the discussions of how to better serve with and in our communities in Alabama. Let's extend the love of Christ!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

My Ecuadorian Re-education

A few weeks ago I read a book called Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. It's a heart-warming, funny, yet thought-provoking novel about a Chinese boy from the city who is sent to a small village to receive his "re-education" during China's Cultural Revolution, a period of mandated change ordered by leader Mao Zedong. As I finished the novel, I began to compare my experience living in a quaint mountain village in Ecuador, which was extremely different than my life up to that point, to the narrator's story.

Before living in Romerillos, Ecuador, I had really only been resident of three places: Aurora, Indiana, where I grew up and went to high school; Holland, Michigan, where I spent four lovely years completing my bachelor's degree; and San Jose, Costa Rica, where although I was never an official resident, I served as a missionary through YWAM for eight months. Now none of these towns (even San Jose, which is a city of about half a million people) felt enormous to me, and they were definitely nothing compared to large cities like Chicago or New York City. But all three of those locations seemed infinitely bigger than the tiny Ecuadorian town of 500.

It's funny looking back now. I never thought of living in a city as attractive. Life in an urban setting sounded so busy and chaotic, with so many people, traffic, and little time or space to just breathe. I thoroughly enjoyed living in the places I did, especially Holland, which despite its size had a lot to offer as far as cultural activities, tourism, and cures for the typical bored college student. So I was mostly content to be sent to a small town in Ecuador. Little did I know just how small it would be until I arrived.

Living in Romerillos changed me in more ways than I could have imagined. I witnessed firsthand the intense, backbreaking work that it is to live in the country, with agricultural produce being a family's main source of income. The majority of children and families that I worked with in Romerillos owned a small piece of land and worked on it from dawn to dusk to provide for their families. I learned to give thanks to God for blessings such as having a dry home on a rainy day, and for friendship on a lonely evening. 

I learned about finding satisfaction in life, that's it's more than just having a prestigious job or expensive things. It's about taking in the beautiful mountain view from outside my window, hearing the sounds of children's laughter as their feet pounded the stairs to my apartment. About prioritizing relationships over time, taking a few extra minutes of my morning to chat with neighbors before heading off to teach. About sharing a joke with someone in another language, feeling like part of the family.

These are just a few of the many lessons I received in Romerillos. Above all, I learned to live in a way that I had never done before, with people who were very different than myself, but also very similar. Now, looking back, my Ecuadorian re-education was challenging in many ways, but most definitely rewarding. And just as the narrator in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress looks back on his time in the village with nostalgia but also deep appreciation, I can remember my time in Romerillos and know that I have been forever changed.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Puzzling Through Life

I used to hate puzzles. For me, they meant long, boring hours spent at the table, trying to find just a single piece that fit while my mother and sister sped along finishing whole sections. You know the puzzles I'm talking about. Yes, those 1000-piecers with a picture of leaves or something in nature that are practically all one color. Tedious and frustrating were my words to describe them. I failed to see the beauty in a jigsaw puzzle.

Now, years later, I have come to develop an appreciation and genuine enjoyment of doing puzzles. Often when I visit my mother or grandparents we will just sit together and do a puzzle. It can be a very relaxing time; there is no rush to finish and it gives us time to chat and think at the same time. While our mind is busy visualizing where shapes and colors will best fit, we chatter on about the latest news or how cousin Carolyn is doing.

Last week I bought my very first 1000 piece puzzle. Since I live by myself, I figured it would be a good way to keep myself busy on those lonely nights. Of course, science also says that jigsaw puzzles help stimulate the brain in different ways: by reinforcing short-term memory, using both the left and right brain, and encouraging production of dopamine, which both regulates mood and affects concentration. So puzzles are not only challenging and fun, but improve our mental health!

The other day I was working on my new puzzle, a quirky combination of different colorful windows from all over the world, and I started thinking. As I searched for just the right orange to complete the shutters, I began to see how I often go about life like I'm doing a puzzle. I want everything to fit just right, so I spend ages searching for just the right piece. And sometimes I find it, but other times I don't. When I can't locate the piece I'm looking for, I get frustrated. In this Young Adult Missionary program, I have often felt like I didn't fit just right, like my placement wasn't what I was expecting. Yet God had other plans for me. 

Here in Alabama, maybe I don't fit perfectly, because unlike a puzzle, life isn't perfect. People come in different shapes and colors, and we don't all fit exactly right together. We have to work at relationships, and living and working in community together. At our job, we must choose to make an impact little by little, in our attitude toward co-workers, in our encouraging words to clients, in our efforts to help a family improve their living situation.

I never expected to be working with a home repair ministry, or to be helping families apply for grants, but I'm enjoying it. Over the past few months, I have come to value the type of work Alabama Rural Ministry does, and take ownership of that. I am proud of our accomplishments this summer, of the 6 families that we served and the 23 children we loved on. Although we are a small organization, we have a lot of potential for growth and outreach to the community. So, I will keep puzzling through life, and trying to find where I fit into this beautiful mess that we call "ministry."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sonshine Kids Day Camp

During college I had always wanted to be a summer camp counselor, and it never worked out, so it's funny that now, years later, I would have the opportunity to do just that. Little did I know what I was getting myself into, as I prepared and trained to work with ARM's summer staff as a day camp coordinator.

My job for these past two months consisted of several responsibilities:
  • Welcoming and hosting volunteer teams from all over the Southeastern U.S.
  • Planning and leading nightly worship and reflection time, along with my co-workers
  • Coordinating day camp activities for each day such as crafts, games, Bible lessons, snack, and reading time
  • Contacting youth group leaders about their team's involvement in day camp programs
  • Actually interacting with and supervising the children each day at camp
Now I have worked with children before in several settings: teaching English, Vacation Bible School, tutoring, babysitting, etc. Even so, this summer I learned many a-lesson about patience, working as a team, flexibility, structure, and decisiveness. After having worked with kids most of the 17 months I lived in Ecuador, I felt pretty prepared for this summer. And by prepared, I mean that I had very little expectations, I was ready to have to start everything from scratch and for kids to randomly show up one day and not the next with no explanation.

In some ways, I was pleasantly surprised. For example, ARM has done day camp for over 10 years and the organization has a good training and framework for how the camp should run. But I was right in that it turned out to be a ton of work! This summer I hardly had time to check my email or Skype with friends or loved ones. At the start of the summer, we diligently worked to set up a daily schedule filled with fun and learning to keep our 20-25 kids busy each day. Then each day we received the kids with greetings and hugs, invited them into this safe and nurturing space, and learned about God's love.

Here is a summary, in photos, of what my summer looked like:

The staff I worked with on a regular basis were wonderful, along with our counselor-in-training. They helped me every step of the way, when the going got rough, and never said no to accepting more responsibility when we were short-handed.

Week by week we also had youth group teams come to help us at camp. Teams made our life easier because they would often come with activities planned that we could use with the kids, and having more adults (or youth) in the room gave the kids the one-on-one attention that is so important. These youth played a vital role in our ministry with the kids!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Who Do You Think You Are?

I feel that I must first apologize for my long absence from blogging. Although I had a good excuse (an extremely busy summer with little or no time for dawdling), I have failed my faithful readers. My hope is to get back into the habit of writing at least once every two weeks again.

With that said, you are probably all wondering what my "extremely busy" summer looked like. Well, I am about to tell you. This summer I served as part of the day camp team for Alabama Rural Ministry's summer camps. Now our "camps" are not like a regular church camp, but rather an opportunity for youth groups or other teams to come volunteer with us for a week, working on home repair or at the children's day camp (similar to Appalachian Service Project or Service Over Self).

I had gone on several mission trips in college, even co-led one my senior year, but now instead of coming to the organization to serve, I was part of the staff there to receive the incoming teams. The experience was very different for me, but I have realized that working with short-term teams is something that I very much enjoy. My first exposure to this was in Ecuador, helping to host a few mission teams from the U.S. like in the picture below, where they were building a dining facility for an after school program in Pijal.

So, I began this summer very excited to learn from these youth teams and to help them grow in their relationship with Christ through our theme of TRANSFORMATION as in Romans 12:1-2. Over the course of these two months, we had six groups stay with us in Tuskegee, most from Alabama, but including one from close to home - Cincinnati, Ohio! All of the teams were a joy to work with. Each week my job was to coordinate the activities at our day camp and make sure the volunteers interacted well with the kids.

Then in the evenings, we as a staff would lead worship with the teams. Our nights often involved learning about the community and the poverty that exists there, or reflecting on how our lives can be transformed when we decide to follow Christ. We asked the question, who do you think you are? Instead of conforming to what society says we should be, we can be renewed by changing the way that we think. We talked a lot about identity, about how the world sets out to make us question our relationship with God. But when we see our true identity as children of God, it enables us to live out our call to serve God with all that we are. No one can ever tell us that we are not good enough to do that.

As we led the youth on this transforming week, sharing in discussions about our day with the children or families, I could see the wheels turning in their minds. Not everyone was visibly transformed immediately or even within the 5 days of their time with us, but my hope is that something they saw or heard during that week changed their way of thinking about God and themselves. That they would have gone home with a new sense of the love that Christ has for them and how they are called to share that with others.

This is just one snippet of my amazing and challenging summer - tune in next time to hear more about what we did with the kiddies at day camp for 7 weeks!

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Connectional Church

Last month I had the privilege of attending the Indiana Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. For those of you who aren't United Methodist, Annual Conferences are gatherings that happen around late spring of every year all around the U.S. and the rest of the world. Each local church sends their pastor and a lay (non-minister) delegate. Annual Conference is a way to connect with churches and other ministries, to make decisions for the larger church, and to see the work that God is doing in your state or region.

I remember attending Annual Conference as a young girl, usually accompanying my mother as the United Methodist Women's president. Then one year, when I was about 17, I was asked to go as my church's lay delegate. I listened to the speakers, attended the worship services, and voted in the sessions. It was during that conference that I began to understand the connectionalism of our church.

The United Methodist Church is a global and connected church in many ways. Being a large denomination worldwide, we have a huge sphere of influence among very diverse populations and communities across the globe. UMCOR is often one of the first disaster-relief organizations on site after a hurricane or earthquake. United Methodist Women, the largest faith-based denominational organization, advocates to stop human trafficking, educates women on social issues, provides services to domestic workers, and much more.

The way the United Methodist Church is organized enables it to more effectively utilize its resources. Each local church is connected with other churches in the region, called a district. Many districts come together to make up a conference. Conferences are then combined to become jurisdictions. At each of these levels, mission work takes place and congregations collaborate to reach out to those in need.

At this year's Annual Conference, I had the opportunity to speak briefly about the Young Adult Missionary Program and my experience serving in both Ecuador and Alabama. The Mission Resources Team shared about many ways to connect in mission in the Indiana Conference. It was inspiring to see the impact organizations are having in my home state addressing injustices. I also was able to support the local church in Ecuador where I worked by selling handicrafts at the conference. As always, being at the conference enabled me to meet many wonderful people and see how the people of the United Methodist Church are changing the world by opening their doors, hearts and minds to all who want to learn about Christ and his love for us. I am blessed to be a part of this church.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

When Helping Hurts

I'm sure most of you have heard the old adage "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." This saying deals with the issue of short-term (immediate) help versus long-term (permanent) help. Living in a world and society that faces poverty in every corner, we must become more creative and careful than ever in order to effectively help people who are struggling economically.

In Ecuador, I lived in a rural town where economic poverty abounded. Although I cannot say that I have ever actually lived in poverty myself, I experienced it firsthand in my community and realized quickly that I had little power or resources to overcome it. So I invested my energy into developing relationships with people, loving them for who they are, and trying to be a genuine neighbor.

Now I am working with an organization in Alabama that directly addresses the issue of rural poverty through home repair. We work with families who have very limited incomes and connections. This creates extreme challenges in their ability to provide what we would consider "basic" needs to their family. Hospital bills, rent, and putting food on the table easily suck up their monthly check so that there is no money left to fix leaks or send children to college.

So, I have experienced both sides of the problem: being inside the community where people are struggling, and coming from the outside to try to help. The more I interact with families we serve here at ARM, and the more I see their living situations, the more the wheels start turning about the root causes of poverty and how we can solve the larger issue. Because really, giving people money or patching their roof is great, but it doesn't help them become financially independent or stable.  When the next big rain comes and blows away some part of their home, they will be back at our door asking for help again. The goal should be self-sufficiency.

How can we keep from creating dependency? By providing job training, drug rehabilitation, and pregnancy and childcare classes. I strongly believe that by teaching adults life skills and training them to have successful careers, we can prevent much of the poverty that is happening in the U.S. and abroad. That is why part of ARM's vision is to develop relationships with the home-owners, in order to empower them to improve their own situation (we also refer people to other social service agencies).

I am currently reading a book called When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. In it the authors address how sometimes our well-intended ideas of "missions" or "service" such as giving families food or gifts at Christmas, can actually harm people. We are also discussing this issue intensely in our summer training sessions for ARM's summer mission camps. So you can look forward to more reflections on this concept in the future!