Saturday, March 29, 2014

Entering our true home

This post was not what I expected myself to write when I sat down this morning. However, I have been recently inspired by the meaningful words of a man named Henri Nouwen. Maybe you've heard of him. He was a Catholic priest and well-known Christian theologian who wrote many books in the late 1900's. I'm currently reading one of his books, The Inner Voice of Love, which he actually hesitated to publish because of the intimate nature of the thoughts he confesses so honestly about his spiritual journey.

Here is an excerpt from The Inner Voice of Love, that has led me to reflect on several things for the past couple of days.

You have an idea of what the new country looks like. Still, you are very much at home, although not truly at peace, in the old country. Now you have come to realize that  you must leave it and enter the new country, where your Beloved dwells....

For a while you experience a real joy in the new country. But then you feel afraid and start longing again for all you left behind, so you go back to the old country. To your dismay, you discover that the old country has lost its charm. Risk a few more steps into the new country, trusting that each time you enter it, you will feel more comfortable and be able to stay longer.

The first thought that came to my mind after reading this passage was, I experienced this in Ecuador. I knew I had to leave the United States, and I tried to mentally and spiritually prepare myself for the culture shock and different worldviews I would encounter. Being there initially was great, exploring new places, having adventures, learning the language, etc. But after the "honeymoon stage" wore off, I began having doubts, feeling lost and confused, and longing for people and things I had left behind in my homeland.

Then I started to see certain parts of U.S. culture through a different lens. I started to realize that maybe the most powerful nation in the world isn't as perfect as we make it out to be. My country has a lot of issues with greed, economic disparity, and ethnocentrism, just to name a few. America had lost its charm for me.

As my time in Ecuador continued, I realized that I needed to make a leap. I had been afraid of getting too involved, connecting too deeply with the people, because I knew that I would have to leave again in a short time. God was calling me to risk a few more steps into this new country, trusting Him to guide me. To stay a little longer. And when I did that, even though it hurt to leave, it was so totally worth it.

The second thought, after re-reading these paragraphs, is that Nouwen was most likely talking about Heaven here. We all have some idea of Heaven, what we imagine it to be like, whether it is buildings made of pure gold and pearl gates, or breathtaking waterfalls surrounded by lush gardens. There comes a point in life when we comprehend that we are going to leave this world as it is and travel to the next. I love Nouwen's image of Heaven being a place where your Beloved dwells.  His perception is that it will be a place of joy, where we will be with our Beloved, our Redeemer, our best friend. That really resonated with me. Our friendship with Jesus is the deepest, most loving relationship we could ever have. And we get to spend eternity with Him.

Arriving in Heaven, maybe we'll doubt, miss our family and friends, mourn for the days we lost on Earth. But in time we will come to understand that being there is more wonderful than anything we could have ever imagined. Going back home no longer seems like an option. This is home. There are so many new experiences to be had here, if we would just risk taking that step of faith, trusting that each time we will feel more comfortable and be able to stay longer.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Welcome to Alabama

 Honey, you'd better hope Ms. Joann comes to church Sunday, she makes the best coffeecake you've ever tasted.

Oh, don't even try to drive to Auburn on a Saturday. Everyone will be going to the football game. Traffic gets crazy.

You know, there are some interesting folks in this town, so just be careful. Don't answer the door if it's not someone you know. They will come askin' you for money. Just say no. 

That's right. We make BBQ ribs, comes with two sides, oh and you can get plenty-a-cornbread, too. Don't you worry, sweetie.


These are just a few of the comments I've gotten from locals in the past two weeks. People here know what good food is, they take their football very seriously, and they are always lookin' out for you, bless your little heart.

It's been two weeks to the day since I arrived in Tuskegee, a small town of about 9,000. Tuskegee is roughly the size of my home town, Aurora, Indiana, but feels a little smaller. I live right across the street from the elementary school, and the public library, Methodist church, post office, and bank are all within walking distance. So it's a bit bigger than my town in Ecuador. It's nice that everything is so close, although there is not much to do on weekends.

The church parsonage where I live

This town has a very interesting history, due to several key people and events. What it's most known for are the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of young African American pilots who trained in this town for World War 2 despite the government's hesitance to allow them to join the military. Tuskegee University, a historically black college/university (HBCU), founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 as Tuskegee Institute to provide quality education to free black people, is now a nationally-recognized private university. Tuskegee is 95% African American, due to white flight following the civil rights movement in the 1960's.

Moton Field, where the Tuskegee Airmen trained
Tuskegee University campus
George Washington Carver Museum

My work here with Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM) takes me to another very different culture, despite its distance of only 27 miles from Tuskegee. I am speaking of the Auburn/Opelika area, known for Auburn University, where college students crowd the streets; restaurants, churches, and stores abound; and you can almost feel the football fervor in the air. Although ARM does a lot of its work in Tuskegee, our office is currently located in Opelika, so I drive in about 4-5 days a week.

Speaking of my job, what do I actually do? Well, ARM is a non-profit affiliated with the United Methodist Church whose main ministries are home repair and kids' day camp. ARM runs on volunteers, so we coordinate groups to come in and help with these different projects throughout the year. During the summer, we have tons of church groups who volunteer to work on houses, and help run the kid's program. It's the busiest time of the year. That being said, now we are in preparation mode for the summer, doing fundraising, planning summer staff training, and finding work for all the willing hands that will be serving with us. So, if you are interested in extending the love of Christ by working for a week or weekend this summer in Alabama, let me know. We'd love to have you!

The first team I worked with, from Monroeville, AL

I'm learning more every day, exploring new corners of town, meeting great people, and even picking up a bit of a Southern accent. Some days are better than others, but overall I'm excited to be here in Alabama!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Simple Living: Part 1

Simple living blog series:

Simple living: a manner of life in modest position, in other words: living in a humble way. What does it mean to live in "modest position" or in a humble way? These are difficult terms to define, and when we start to dig deeper into the meaning, can become challenging standards to uphold. Still, I believe we are called to live in a way that respects not only our Creator but also our surroundings: our fellow world citizens and the world we inhabit. 

To start this mini-series on simple living, I would like to reflect on some personal paradigm shifts that I experienced during my time in Ecuador, and upon coming home. 


Before leaving for Ecuador, I defined simple living as making do without a lot of the material luxuries I have been used to having in the U.S. First of all, I would be moving to another country, so it would be very impractical to take everything I owned with me for a year and a half. In my program, we were encouraged to bring just the necessities and maybe a few sentimental memories of home (photographs, books, etc). 

From the start, I had what I considered to be very little material possessions. My living room was furnished with a rug and three simple chairs. I used a stone tablet built into the wall to wash clothes. My kitchen was supplied with a simple stove/oven unit, a refrigerator, and a few cabinets (no microwave or coffeemaker). But soon my concept of little was fractured when I saw the homes of some of my neighbors and friends. Many families I visited and became close with had few appliances and furniture in their homes, and were totally content with what they had. 

Reality hit. I have many things that are nice, but not necessities. This became even clearer to me upon my return to the U.S. and my childhood home. I literally could not believe my eyes when I walked into my room and saw the amount of “junk” that had accumulated over the past 20 years. Granted, a lot of it was furniture or textbooks from college. Nevertheless, I needed to do some cleaning. Some thinking. And some de-stressing. That’s right. Seeing all this stuff had me seriously stressed out. I couldn’t help but think, what I am doing with all this clutter?  

I still have not had time to get rid of a lot of it, but in my few days at home I realized that I want to change the way I think about “stuff”. When I am 60 years old, I don’t want to have a house full of junk and wonder why I bought half of it in the first place. Things will not bring me happiness. Plus, there are clearly so many better ways to use the resources (i.e. income) I have. Instead of that cute new wall decoration, couldn’t I be helping someone who doesn’t have clean water in their home? Decisions like these are daily ways in which we can impact the world. 

Stay tuned for my next post on simplicity, Part 2: Use of resources!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Heart in two places

I am now back in the United States of America. I have been back in my home country for almost a month now. I am loving seeing family and friends, but am still struggling with missing so many aspects of life in Ecuador. Here are some things I miss about day to day life:

1. Setting the work aside to play UNO with kids in the evenings.
2. The feeling of accomplishment that comes after washing all your clothes by hand.

3. Experiments in the kitchen with soup, rice, and homemade bread.
4. Walking with flashlights to visit families at night.
5. The cheerful chaos of hanging out with kids at the childcare center: wiping snot off noses, supervising the playground, holding little hands.

6. Going to the store around the block for flour or rice, paying less than $5 for all my daily needs.
7. The ease and affordable-ness of bus travel. Paying $1.25 for a two-hour ride.
8. Simple phones that work and don't cost a fortune.
9. The simplicity of life (more about that in a future post).

But there are also some things I really appreciate about being here:

1. Having indoor heating on cold winter nights.
2. The ease of throwing dirty socks in the washing machine.
3. Regular access to fresh treated water, ice, and desserts. :)
4. Walking outside to a winter wonderland. Snow...what a beautiful thing.

5. Microwaves.
6. Shoes in my size! A size 40 (8.5 U.S. size) is no longer abnormally huge.
7. Driving for hours on straight, 4-lane, smooth (for the most part) highways.
8. Seeing friends and family, having people to play bananagrams with.

9. Unlimited access to books - public libraries are great (and so are gifts).

That said, you can see that I am torn between the advantages and disadvantages of each of these two societies where I have lived. Just as I tried to adjust to the Ecuadorian culture, while not losing important parts of myself connected to my own North American culture, now I will have to begin again here in the United States, while maintaining some of the values and simple lifestyle choices that I picked up in Ecuador. In many areas, there is a middle ground, between technology and simplicity, self-sufficiency and community. For example, I can use kitchen appliances without feeling guilty of my privilege, while at the same time deciding not to buy a new car just because I could. It's recognizing the difference between need and want, between being comfortable and following your convictions.

Lord, thank you for giving me this irreplaceable opportunity to experience a different culture, for the vulnerability and courage of being a stranger in a foreign land. Thank you for giving me a home there, for making me part of a community, and finding new parts of myself that I never knew. And thank you now for bringing me back to the land where I grew up, to teach those around me what I learned, to share with them a new worldview, and to continue challenging those comfortable places here. Amen.