An Ethiopian Endeavor: Part 3 // Set Apart

joey and isaacSide note: This is Isaac. He is a ten year old habesha (meaning Ethiopian native, etc.) boy in the city, and I love him dearly. I’m really bad at names, so I call kids ‘baby’ all the time. At first he hated it, but we eventually came to an understanding that I can call him my baby if he can call me Mommy. And thus, I have been dubbed the ‘American habesha mommy’ to sweet Baby Isaac and his close friends.

Ethiopia was an interesting trip. I learned a lot. About our God, about missions, about different team dynamics, about myself. I came home with two very important lessons burning a hole in my heart:

I am, in fact, set apart for life as a vocational missionary.

Not everyone with whom I travel with is.

In a previous post, I talked about the comfort I found in this last trip to Swaziland. Being at Njojane was like coming home from college for the summer.  I’m just as comfortable sitting on a bench in the feeding center as I am on my parents’ couch. Half my team to Swaziland, our team leader and family, has a permanent, lifelong heart for the people of Njojane, just like me.  Ethiopia was an entirely different ballgame. For the first time, I was in the minority of people who were diving headfirst into a brand new experience. Of the eleven team members, eight of them had been to Ethiopia with this group before; a ninth had at least been to Ethiopia with another organization. The tenth team member was the teenage daughter of #9; I was number eleven. I was the odd man out, without any friends or family members on the team, and without experience on my side.

I was the odd man out in another way as well: I am dedicating my life to wherever the Lord might send me, and I am therefore prepared for the things the mission field can throw at me. I’m not wowed or shocked by the same things that other people can be. Climbing into and bouncing around in the backseat of and old Land Cruiser has lost the luster the once had. I no longer ooo’d and aww’d over the food; Swazi food (and now shirowat) has become my comfort food of choice. I am comfortable with children I have never met pulling at my clothes, crawling up into my lap, giving me sloppy wet kisses, calling me mommy. The discomfort associated with carrying around a child who is bare-bottomed, wearing no pants, underpants or diaper, is completely neutralized, though abjectly avoided by most. The illusion of living the glamorous life of missionary has been shattered–I’ve been doing this long enough to know there is nothing glamorous about sticky fingers leaving fabric paint on my favorite skirt and having my hair pulled painfully tight in braids, dishing out three hundred bowls of sticky rice and beans without a single thank you.

As a sweeping generalization, parents in the third world (particularly in African nations) don’t love on their children in the way parents in the first world (particularly in western nations) love on theirs. Children are to be seen and not heard, and preferably not seen. In many cases, the announcement of a pregnancy or birth is not one that evokes congratulations or excitement, but solemn understanding. One more mouth to feed, one more mind to put through school, one more dowry to pay or spouse to support. There is no one cheering that child on while he or she struggles with reading or memorizing times tables or dealing with self esteem. I love getting to be that cheerleader, for however short a time. I love it so much that I requested to lead the large group time during the part of the trip spent in Amharic territory. I love it so much that I begged the translators to teach me the Amharic for a list of the daily affirmations I have seen, heard, and lead on Swazi care pointes, so that I could teach our kids. I am special. I am important. I am pretty. I am smart. I am loved. I matter.

There was one specific instance while in Ethiopia that I felt distinctly, definitely, irreparably the odd man out on my team. It was one afternoon after vacation bible school in Amharic territory, and we were circled around the dinner table, talking about the day. People were complaining about the kids’ relentless behavior each time we try to depart. I sat in stunned silence as my team members said the following things:

“They [the kids] don’t have to crowd around the care at the gate. They know we’re leaving, why don’t they let us leave?”

“I can only hug one person at a time. You need to back off.”

“I’ve already hugged you like five times, I don’t need any more.”

One of my very favorite things in the entire world is a giant hug from a group of kiddos at the end of the day as we’re leaving. You know, the kind where I’m walking with hands full of smaller hands. One kid comes up and wraps arms around me, and slowly more and more and more kids are wrapping their little arms around me and weighing me down and pushing me over. It thrills my heart to pass out kisses on the cheek or forehead to an endless line of kids desperate for affection, and to get down on my knees to look kids in the eyes when I tell them they are important, that they matter, to hug them one on one so they know I mean it. Do you know why? Because these kids, like all kids, need someone willing to get down on their level and tell them they matter, to take the time to kiss them on the forehead, to hug them one on one.

My heart was so deeply wounded to hear team members complain about children acting out to find the affection for which they are so desperately starved. Could they behave better? Yeah. Could they listen better when we say, that’s enough, we have to go? Sure. In my mind, I was instantly quoting Jesus–“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:14). So maybe it’s time to go, but what’s the rush? We’re on no strict schedule. The whole evening is composed of free time. We can spend a few extra minutes loving on kids in need. That is a need I feel, I understand, I can fill. It took everything in me as all members of the team chimed in with some sort of agreement to not scream at the top of my lungs. Don’t get me wrong, I love these people and the work they do. We are brothers and sisters in Christ…but nonetheless, I was livid. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been so angry. Are you kidding me? I thought to myself. Do you understand that this is the purpose behind our mission? It was because I love these people that I had to take a deep breath. Okay, a lot of deep breaths. I had to complete about fifteen minutes of deep breathing exercises in order to make sure I was really in control of my mouth before I felt calm enough to talk. Love is patient, love is kind, I thought to myself. It keeps no record of wrongs. Before I could say anything, I remembered a conversation I had with Jesus a few days prior:

“But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.” Galatians 1:15-16

God has set me apart and called me by his grace. If I’m going to preach his name, my words need to show him, not my humanness. My mind jumped to other places scripture talks about being set apart:

“The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.'” Jeremiah 1:4-5

“Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. Tremble and [in your anger] do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.” Psalms 4:2-4

I love when the word of the Lord resonates within me and my circumstances, not just in one place, but repeatedly. I have no authority to point a finger; I am not blameless. He knew I would encounter this conversation with my teammates, and he knew the anger that would burn inside of me, but that his divine love would overcome. I waited awhile to write this to let that anger dissipate, rather than have this piece be a lashing-out against my team. Now that I’ve given it time, I have found that I am no longer angry, but rather, I hurt for my teammates. They don’t get to experience the same kind of messy, dirty, smelly, sweaty, sticky, unadulterated joy in which I have been called to thrive, and that makes my heart so sad for them. This is a joy that forces my cup to overflow, overflow, overflow. It’s something I know deep down in my soul, that Christians are set apart from the world–it’s that whole ‘IN the world, not OF the world’ philosophy–but it occurred to me that I have forgotten that I am set apart from other Christians because I have been called differently than other Christians. The passage from Galatians specifies that God has set me apart, called me by his grace, and demands that I live a life worthy of the Lord and that calling (Colossians 1:10, Ephesians 4:1). I have never been so happy to be the odd man out, because I was reminded that I was the odd man out for Christ. It’s a constant reminder that this fabulously unglamorous life I have been given is a rarity, and that I am blessed enough to live it.

An Ethiopian Endeavor: Part One

The tallest mountain in Ethiopia--right around 11,000 feet!

The tallest mountain in Ethiopia–right around 11,000 feet!

I recently returned from my first trip to Ethiopia, and I have been wrestling with the experience. Just about every aspect of the trip conflicted with previously held standards, opinions, and methods of ministry. It was uncomfortable, and for me to claim discomfort…well, then it’s real.

I don’t mean uncomfortable in the way you might think. Yes, I slept outside, dangling from the branches of an acacia tree in my little green hammock (which was really much better than it sounds, after the first sleepless night. more on that later). Yes, I learned how to poop on the backside of the building (while making eye contact with nationals, I might add). Yes, I ate more goat than any one human should ever eat in a lifetime (to answer your question, it’s like eating cheap, slightly overcooked beef). Yes, I dealt with the stigma of being a ferengi, a foreigner, an outsider, and the ensuing scrutiny by tribal leaders. So maybe those things weren’t the most comfortable aspects of the trip, but they were nothing in comparison to what made me the most uncomfortable:

I couldn’t identify with my Creator.

For most of the trip, I couldn’t speak the name of Christ; I could not read my bible openly; I could not sing any of the many children’s songs I know because of their spiritual content. I could not lead worship. I had to make sure my tattoos, all of which relate back to Christ, stayed covered. I couldn’t live out loud the way I am used to, or be myself “in the One who makes me who I am” (Philippians 4:13, MSG). I had been warned that we would have to censor some of our ministry…I guess I didn’t understand that we would have to censor our entire ministry not only for our safety, but for the safety of the children with whom we would be spending our time. I don’t think I have to mention the fact that, if it were only my safety in jeopardy, I wouldn’t have censored a dang thing. The Gospel would have been proclaimed far and wide at the top of my lungs…but, since the lives of innocent children were at stake, I gritted my teeth. clenched my fists. and loved with open arms. I taught English–the parts of the body, various animals (taught by playing charades! so fun), articles of clothing, the literal way in which light pierces the darkness of this world. We taught songs, we played soccer and dodgeball, we painted a giant picture on a canvas drop cloth.

The language barrier was far greater with the tribal kids than I’ve previously experienced with the kids at Njojane, so fortunately for me, I didn’t have to answer questions like, “Why are you here?”…however, it was still incredibly painful to see beautiful smiling faces and squeeze tiny hands and hug malnourished bodies without being able to whisper in waiting ears that Master of the universe, the Creator of the world loves you so very much. Unfortunately, upon my return, I cannot give specifics about the tribal area in which we worked; I cannot post pictures of the children’s faces due to the unique bone structure of the tribe…doing so would give away the location of our ministry and put the safety of the children in jeopardy.

Never in my life have I had to keep quiet about my faith. Sure, as a child and early pre-teen, I was not so boisterous and boastful about the grace and mercy I’ve received at the hands of my Father; in fact, if you told little Joey that I would one day be traveling all over the world to preach the Gospel, I would have laughed in your face. Since my initial collision with Christ, I have found the strength to boast in my weakness and I can’t stop. While I was in Ethiopia, I discovered that not only can I not stop, but I don’t want to stop…but more on that next time.

The Interim

I have been struggling through the aftermath of this year’s Swazi experience. It was much different for me than previous trips; living arrangements were different, the people were different, my expectations were different. With very limited access to the internet and longer work days, I was unable to write much of anything worth writing. I have pieced together a collection of anecdotes detailing some of the individual experiences, to be posted in a few days. I’m still mulling everything over, trying to glean as much information as I can from this trip before I am too far removed.

One note of concern I had early on in the trip was my lack of emotional response (aside from a handful of small experiences to be shared later). The shock factor of the various care points has worn off; I didn’t feel the same stretch and pull or the nudging of the Holy Spirit that instills growth and reveals the lessons that God has prepared for me. I’ve been patient. I patiently waited out the 355 days in between trips. I patiently waited in line for airport security. I sat patiently through the 16 hour flight and the 6 hour drive to Mbabane. I waited patiently through the first morning at Njojane, playing with the preschoolers, helping dish the meals, singing songs…all while waiting patiently for my babies to get back from school. Finally, I saw Tengetile coming over the hill, dragging a piece of firewood behind her–kids eat for free as long as they bring a stick to keep the cooking fire burning, that’s the deal–as she approached the stick pile, we made eye contact. She dropped her stick and ran full speed at me. I picked her up and hugged her…but there was no spark. Even when Khetokuhle got to the care pointe and sought me out, it didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary.

I wrestled with this for the first few days. It took some thinking and praying and talking to my team leader, a 4-trip veteran, to realize why I wasn’t experiencing an emotional response:

I am home.

Home is a place where you are welcomed and comfortable. It’s warm and there is lots of hugs and laughter. Home is where you’re feet feel happy upon the familiar ground, there are games to be played and stories told. Its a place where no one is afraid to be himself or herself, where bellies can be filled and spirits lifted. Home is where the language of love is spoken, through smiles and hands held. It’s a resting place, where you are comfortable in your own skin. I don’t get emotional when I come home at the end of a semester, because it’s home. Its a special place, but comfy. Familiar. It’s not exciting, but it is a place I belong.

I keep coming back to the word comfortable, which is funny to me. If you ask anyone that has ever been to Africa on a mission trip, they will tell you there is nothing comfortable about Africa. We are forced to grow in faith and in spirit, in strength and in courage because of the people we meet and the things that we see. There are too many heart wrenching sights to grow comfortable in a place like Swaziland, but nonetheless, I feel comfortable. There is nothing comfortable about carrying around two toddlers while others pull at your arms and legs. There is nothing comfortable about bouncing around in the backseat of a khombi on dirt roads, hitting potholes the size of a small sedan. There is nothing comfortable about sending children home loaded down with a backpack full of the bare necessities, hoping an older child or adult won’t rob her of your gift on the walk home. There is nothing comfortable about watching your sponsor children sob at the sight of the khombi pulling out of the care pointe for the last time. These things are excruciatingly painful, both physically and emotionally, but these are the things I am dedicating my life to so that some day, no one else will need to.

text message

This is the very greatest compliment I could receive. I got this text message yesterday from one of my very first babies–the young ladies in the small group I had the blessing to lead while I was in high school. She is now finishing up her freshman year of high school, and is making me so proud in everything she does. She is currently leading a group of third and fourth graders at summer camp, and this is what she shared with me. I can’t think of a single third or fourth grader I know, but somehow, he knows me and my heart well enough to identify the Guatemalan equivalent of me. My cup and my heart are so overflowing.

5 days, 14 hours until Ethiopia.

17 Days // at the foot of the Cross

17 days. There are only 17 more days until I leave for Swaziland.

The word ‘transparency’ is a big church buzzword that has a tendency to get thrown around casually in conversation without, unfortunately, always being demonstrated or explained. People like me, meaning those of the Jesus generation who want more on Sunday morning than a mega-church with an awesome light show during worship, tend to shy away from this type of word. It is overused, and thus loses its meaning; however, there is something to be said about transparency in the proper use. When a person is transparent with another, he or she is giving full disclosure, typically about things done wrong, failures, shortcomings, etc., to another for the biblical purpose of confessing one’s sins to another, in order to be held accountable (yet another church buzzword) and continue to grow. In my opinion, it is one of the most crucial responsibilities of anyone who desires to work in ministry, whether voluntarily or vocationally, because it does more than keep us honest–it forces us to deal with our own mistakes and grow through them, while our coworkers do the same, so that we all grow together and there is no comparison of dirty laundry because everyone has it. This being said, I need to be transparent with you, to confess an area in which I fall short.

First, it is important you know that I am struggling to fundraise for my trips this summer. Ethiopia will be paid off after I transfer some money out of my savings account, but I still have a large sum to raise for Swaziland. Even after nearly 150 letters sent out, very little has come in. With only 17 days left until our team departs, I am getting very nervous.

I got up early this morning to take my younger sisters to get donuts before dropping them off at school. Afterwards, I came home and sat down at the kitchen table to work on a blog post for today and hit writer’s block. I decided to skip ahead to my pre-Swaziland mission devotional, a fantastic book by Jack Hempfling called, ‘Before You Go.’ I’ve read the book before, but we read it annually as a team, and today’s devotional hit me right between the eyes: today’s devo was entitled ‘Losing to God Will Help You Win,” paired with a passage from James 4. It is not a long chapter, so I pulled out my bible and read the passage in its full context. By verse 3, I felt as though I’d been slapped in the face.

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

Ouch. It stings to hear read such things, especially when you are hopeful of being filled up and encouraged. I read over Hempfling’s devo for the day, and sat back to think. Have I really been asking for financial provision with the right motives? In my heart, I want to answer yes, because the money I have been trying to raise is for a philanthropic purpose. It’s so I can go out into the world, to see my place, my people, my babies in Swaziland. .

Even as I type this now, I flinch. MY place. MY people. MY babies. I know that I am not the most humble person in the world; I think it may be a common misconception that missionaries don’t struggle with the same sins that everyone else deals with. After all, I take pride in the work that I do and the things I am passionate about, because God has gifted me in ways that call me and set me apart, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking pride in that. The problem comes when I am prideful in that. I have concentrated my focus far too much on the necessity of ME going to Swaziland, not the gift of GOING to Swaziland. I think back to last year’s trip, and realize that my pride got in the way then too. I was so excited that  got to go back, that I lost a small part of the joy that comes in serving. I took a step back to let others, those who had note been before, serve first, experience first, love first, which I thought was the right thing to do, seeing as how I have had the chance to experience this before; let the newbies do it. If they need help, I can step in like the pro that I am to bridge the gap. Only now am I realizing how wrong this thought process is.

It hurts my heart to think that I missed out on some of the joy, but, as much as it stings, I am glad God has called this to my attention now, rather than a month from now when it is too late. I refuse to let my pride get in the way of the joy God has in store for not only me, but my team as well. Instead, I will cling to the words of Paul, at the start of Ephesians 4.

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called with all humility and gentleness.

So there you have it. I have removed the plank from my eye, confessed my sinful nature, admitted defeat. I ask for forgiveness from God and from you, for not properly conveying the joy that lies in a cheerful heart with the right motives. I am on my face at the foot of the Cross, praying that Christ might change my heart in order to prepare me for the experiences that lie in wait.

17 days. I go home in 17 days.

Day 1: Before I Go…

It’s today. So many feelings this morning. So many instances of nearly crying in the middle of church or driving home or talking to people, asking me how many hours until I leave, because they know I am keeping track.

I have eagerly been counting down the days since I last found myself in the Indianapolis airport. My mom came to pick me up, and she asked how my trip was and I broke down crying. The only words I could fathom were, I have to go back. I have to go back I have to go back I have to go backI am going back. It’s right now. This is happening. I am sitting in the Indianapolis airport waiting to board the first plane and it is taking everything in me to not jump up and down and yell “It’s today it’s today it’s today!”

Just this morning someone asked me if I was ever afraid to go. I have heard a lot of variations of this question: Isn’t it dangerous? Isn’t there disease? Isn’t it weird to have strange children crawling on you? Doesn’t it make you uncomfortable to be stared at because you’re white? Do they have real toilets or are you going to use squatty potties? What if they don’t like you?

Doesn’t it scare you?

The answer is yes. Yes, it scares me very much. It is terrifying to be so incredibly in love with something that I can’t get it off my mind and to know I am risking my life. It is terrifying to be so scared of this passion so deeply rooted in my heart because I don’t get scared of things. But I know that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is one of the most elemental truths of my entire life, and I am so, so grateful for this.

However: the people I am leaving behind don’t feel this. They can’t understand how fulfilling it is to rock a colicky baby to sleep while her mother cooks, or the overwhelming feeling of having kids fight over who gets to hold your hand while walking from place to place. They haven’t experienced this raw, unadulterated joy; they see only the risks. I have several friends and family members that adamantly oppose this trip and the plan to go back long term, and I can appreciate their opposition. It is out of genuine concern, and lack of understanding. It is for them I have these words:

“And I will be to her a wall of fire all around,” declares the Lord, “And I will be the glory in her midst.” Zechariah 2:5

“God is within her, she will not fail.” Psalm 46:5

I’m a little nervous to step on this plane, but I’m not afraid for myself. I know that I will be taken care of, that I will be safe, that everything that happens on this trip will be nothing short of God’s glory and his plan for my life.

Goodbye, America. See you later.