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!