Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Great Commission is for Everyone

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the passage in Matthew 28 that’s known to many of us as the Great Commission. It’s often used to talk about missionaries, it’s used almost every time someone starts a GoFundMe for their summer mission trip (guilty). It’s referenced in the majority of sermons I’ve heard around the topic of what it means to be in mission.
    The Great Commission to me, is deeply rooted in the memory of my mother kneeling by my bed each night for many years of my childhood and praying for me. It is rooted in the memory of delivering Meals on Wheels with one grandmother, and sitting beside my other grandmother as she taught Sunday school at our local nursing home.
    It was all those nights my father came home after a ten hour workday and asked me about my day as soon as he walked in the door, and his continued enthusiasm at the thought of me living in Alaska
    It was my brother checking on me after a long work day to make sure training is going well.
    And It was my church family, always asking me about my “next mission trip”, every single Sunday, repeatedly and without fail, because they believed I could be a missionary long before I believed it myself.
    The Great Commission in my life was not singular. I did not wake up one day and hear a sudden unexplained call from God to do mission work. Serving God was something that was exemplified by the people all around me, who followed the Great Commission right where they were.
    We may be the ones physically going somewhere, but we are not alone in the journey. I would not be standing here right now if not for all of those people who were part of the great commission in my life. I know that not everyone had an upbringing as easy as mine. I am extremely fortunate that I have always had Christian examples.   Even if your life story is not as smooth as mine has been, I’m sure you can think of at least one person who helped you on your journey to this program. Maybe it was a pastor, teacher or friend, or maybe it was the person who first told you about Global Mission Fellows. Maybe it was someone at Global Ministries, who helped you get through the application process or figure out the logistics of travelling to Atlanta. As we head out on our two years of service, let’s remember that we are not on this mission alone. Let’s notice and give thanks for the people around us, living out the Great Commission every day. Today, consider taking the time to text or Facebook message someone who exemplified the Great Commission in your life. Let them know you are thankful for how they helped you get right here today, on the brink of being commissioned as a Global Mission Fellow.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

How to be a Missionary: A Step by Step Guide

     Arrive at your placement site armed with three weeks of training and a level of confidence that you will soon realize is almost entirely unjustified. Sure, you're ready to fight injustice and spread the love of God and be a generally amazing missionary, but first you have to figure out how to seemingly simple tasks like locking and unlocking doors and adjusting seats in unfamiliar vehicles. Those simple tasks will end up occupying a disturbingly large amount of your time, which really gets in the way of all of those love spreading moments you planned out.
    Spend hours creating detailed plans that will satisfy the powers-that-be and get you through the day in an organized, efficient manner. Plan Food Network worthy meals that will satisfy every imaginable nutritional requirement and crafts that should be featured on Pinterest. Take five to ten seconds to reflect on how well everything seems to be going. Great, now that you paused for those few seconds, you are now somehow approximately twenty-five hours behind schedule. You will probably remain that far behind for the next two years.
     Gather up all of those beautifully detailed plans, fold them neatly, and throw them directly into the garbage. You won't be needing them because the one variable you failed to predict has now changed. Turns out wheat flour doesn't work in the recipe you planned, so the children will have to eat dinner that was made with regular old white flour, which will most definitely be frowned upon by the mighty powers that decide what foods children absolutely must eat ever single day without fail in order to survive.
    Throw together a new plan with your coworkers while simultaneously yelling "Don't climb on that!" across the room for the five hundredth time. Realize that you have abandoned your Mary Poppins tone and worry that you are actually more like the Wicked Witch and none of the children really like you. Begin to have a small existential crisis, then quickly realize there is no time in your schedule for a crisis because there are too many other things you still need to do.
     One day at a completely unexpected moment, catch yourself in a feeling of immense happiness and realize that you actually really do enjoy this life. Sure, it's complete chaos the majority of the time, but it's the chaos that God let you to. Realize that even though you feel lost in a new place sometimes, you still believe you are exactly where you need to be.


Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Good and the Bad

     There's a quote making it's way around social media recently, that most of you have probably seen at least once. A well meaning sentiment regarding recent events, it reads "America is not what happened in Charlottesville, America is what Happened in Houston." It was referring to the recent clash of protesters and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville that became violent, and rescue efforts in Houston after the recent hurricane. While this sounds like a nice thought at first glance and I have no doubt it was written with good intentions, I disagree with it. In my opinion, that is not how history works. We don't get to pick out the parts that make us feel good and forget the rest. United States history is full of heroic moments that should make us proud, but it is also full of darker things that many people do not have the privilege of simply forgetting.
     In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States government attempted to "Americanize"many Native American youth, including Native Alaskans, by sending them to boarding schools. At these schools, many of them were stripped of their names and forbidden to speak their native language. If they did, they were often abused. The internet is strangely quiet about these events. When I searched for sources to help me explain this history, I found only a handful of academic articles that revealed the truth.
      The reason I have become aware of this history is because it is still alive. There are people here in Nome who were students in those boarding schools, so they know what really happened. They are honest about the fact that often, the people who were behind sending them to these schools and sometimes the people who taught there, were missionaries.
     Christians forced people against there will into a place that abused them for being who they were. People claiming to be missionaries were part of an attempt to forcibly strip Native Americans of their culture, because it was believed to be "savage". I don't like this fact at all, but it is still a fact. I do not get to ignore it, because it is all around me.
     This is not a fun "Jennie goes to Alaska" blog post. There will be plenty of those, but not today. As a writer, I cannot leave out the difficult parts of the story. I cannot skip to the end, where a missionary and the daughter of a man who was abused by missionaries served side by side at a food bank. First, I have to be honest about history. Because we must learn about history in order to make sure that we do not repeat it.
Students at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania

Sunday, August 27, 2017

When God Closes a Door

     Yesterday marked a week since my arrival in Nome, and it has been a wonderful experience so far. I am learning the ropes of my job duties, meeting lots of nice people, and getting to explore Nome during uncharacteristically beautiful weather for this time of year. If you were to ask me what the hardest part of my first week here has been, you'd get a very strange answer.
     Every weeknight when we leave the Boys and Girls Club where we work, my fellow missionary Alisha and I are in charge of locking the front door behind us. No big deal, right? Unlocking the door is no trouble at all, we both have done that multiple times without any trouble. But every night, we've had a frustrating struggle with locking that door. We've both tried, and the key just doesn't want to turn that way. Someone told us that cold weather affects locks, which at first I thought was just a white lie to make us feel better about our struggle to complete such a simple task. But I Googled it, and there might be some truth to it. Whatever the reason, locking that door has become the most dreaded part of our day.
     Here we are, two grown women who have been sent here as missionaries because we have supposedly proven that we are up to the task, and we can't even lock a door. Sure, there are people we could call for help, and we have come close to doing that, but my stubbornness gets in the way of that plan. I don't want to be the damsel in distress, I want to be the strong, independent woman who doesn't call someone from their warm home across town to lock a door for me.
     I'm not sure if it was the second or third day of us spending over ten minutes trying to lock that dreaded door, but there was one night when we had just about had enough. We had finished our night of working at the Boys and Girls club, which includes helping with homework and just being there to interact with children, as well as preparing USDA approved, cooked from scratch meals which is a job in itself, even though these children are sweet and appreciative and wash their own dishes. We were both getting frustrated, and entering that grey area that can lead to either hysterical laughing or hysterical crying, and I was leaning more towards crying. Alisha stopped wrestling with the key to reach into her purse for another copy of it, and I decided to give in another try just to pass the time. Without much hope, I gave the key a lazy twist.
     What happened next could have been a scene straight out of a comedy movie. With that one half-hearted twist, the key that we had wrestled with for almost twenty minutes without success, clicked into place. After an enthusiastic celebration that was probably very confusing to all of the people driving by, Alisha asked me what I did to make the key work. The problem was that I have no idea what the secret to locking that door is. It just happened because God made it happen, and I didn't really have anything to do with it.
    I knew this door locking scenario would make good writing material, so when I was trying to figure out the moral of this story I came up with two things. The first moral is that we need to find a solution to this problem before winter starts, The second is this; sometimes, when God closes a door, it is a wonderful thing.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Journey of 3,900 Miles Begins with a Single Down Coat

     At Global Mission Fellows training a few weeks ago, I remember we were talking about what to do when we arrived at our placement sites and someone said "Tell everyone you got there safely so they know you're still alive". We all laughed at the joke, but I think we understood there was a lot of truth to it.
     When I told people I was moving to Alaska, there was definitely a standard reaction of shock that I came to expect. I know it's partially because Alaska is so far from Virginia, but I also blame it on the amount of popular reality shows that take place here. So, I would like to take this opportunity to assure everyone one time and one time only that I am not an ice road trucker or a "bush person". I am a missionary, and I am safely in my apartment with a comfortable bed, food to eat, and a great roommate. Over the past few months, I had discussions with people who live here and they told me what I would need for the climate. I made sure to get those items I would need.
     When I was going through a time in my life when I was having a lot of tough feelings that I decided to talk to a professional about, I remember at one point saying something about how there have been some brief times in my life where I have been in scary medical situations where I was "not okay", and I think it might have been a part of why I sometimes feel the need to constantly reassure anyone who has the slightest worry about me that I am okay.
     Psychological self-analysis aside, I just wanted to thank everyone for all of the prayers, support, and even the concern. I know it comes from a place of love, and deep down I really do appreciate it. I can't wait to discover the adventures that Nome has for me, and to share them with all of you.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What Can I Do?

     Eleven days ago, I arrived home from training to be a missionary, empowered by being around so many people who are passionate about the same things I am. After having so many discussions with these people and learning so much about the values of the program I am a part of, I felt ready to make some real positive change in the world. Then I left the sheltered environment of the training program, and encountered the world in all it's chaos.
     In those eleven days I've been home, a lot has happened in this country. In just eleven days we've heard confusing but troubling threats of nuclear warfare and been smacked in the face with the acknowledgement that in the United States in 2017, racism and white supremacy are alive and well, thriving even. There's probably more that I'm not remembering, and I'm just talking about eleven short days, not even two weeks. I've wanted to do something, but it feels like I'm not in a position to do anything helpful.
     Multiple times I've begun composing passionate Facebook statuses in an effort to make my voice heard, only to change my mind and delete them. The truth is, a Facebook status would do very little to initiate actual change. No matter how well worded my Facebook status is, it will soon be lost in the void of countless other statuses. This blog post might gain some traction for a few days, but it will inevitably be lost in the endless void of the internet. So what can I do?
     As I was thinking about this dilemma, my mind drifted to the dear woman who was our Chaplin at training. Kathryn Mitchem is a former missionary and deaconess, and as far as I'm concerned, a living saint. She told us at the beginning of our training that she would be sitting in on most of our sessions. Not to observe or test us, but to pray for us. Day after day, as we endured long sessions tackling tough issues that sometimes became controversial, she sat quietly in the back and did what she promised us she was there to do. She was a quiet yet powerful presence during our training, and she was well loved.
     I know that I am not alone in my adoration of this woman. Every night at dinner I witnessed people seeking her out and asking her to sit with them. Whenever I saw her in the hallway, she was surrounded by a small crowd. You basically had to stand in line to have a conversation with her. There is just something about this quiet, peaceful woman that draws people in.
     The most profound evidence of Kathryn's impact came during what was called our send-off ritual the night before commissioning. We sat in a circle and passed around a candle, and as each person held the candle for one minute, we were supposed to say positive and affirming things about them. When the candle was handed to Kathryn, the quiet was broken. All forty-five Global Mission Fellows, without previously planning this, stood and applauded our prayer warrior. We got so caught up in our applause that we used up thirty seconds of her minute just standing and clapping.
     So why does Kathryn come to my mind as I try to figure out what I, as just one person, can do in the face of all this evil? Maybe because I know that she has seen decades of evil things, before I was even born. She has seen over and over again how dark the world can be, and she still chooses to shine her light. She gives me hope.
     Advocacy is important and imperative. There's a quote that's been floating around Facebook, and though it's source has been questioned, I think it's a good thought. "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil."In Isaiah Chapter 58, a passage that we studied during one of our training sessions,are these words “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry, and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you,  and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. (Verses 6-8)
     As advocates march with their message of justice, and eager new missionaries embark on our missions, Kathryn continues to pray for us. Knowing this, I feel comforted, and I feel empowered. She and others like her are essential to our mission.I do not know what the future holds for me, or this country, or the world. Even after three weeks of missionary training, I often don't know what I can do to create justice in an enormously unjust world. But I do have hope, because I have the examples of people like Kathryn who have been doing the work of justice for decades. If they have not lost hope, then I will not lose hope. I will keep moving forward even when I am not quite sure of the best way to go. I will follow in the footsteps of those who have been where I am right now, and I will continue the work that they started. It is what I am called to do.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has" (Photo by Lily Sloan)

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Mixed Feelings

     When I graduated from high school, I remember experiencing a strange sense of guilt because I was not at all sad about it. While most of my classmates were lamenting the end of the "good times", and talking about how sad they were to leave the supposedly idyllic small town we grew up in, I was counting down the days until I could stop pretending to even know what "good times' they were talking about.
     While I want to believe I'm not as cynical as I was back then, that strange sense of guilt is trying to come back again. As I prepare to move to a new state very soon, I find myself answering a lot of questions about how I feel about this move, and many times those questions feel like they are asked with the expectation of a certain answer. If I say I'm excited to go, I worry that it will sound like I have a terrible life here that I can't wait to get away from. If I say there are people and things I am sad to leave, I worry that it will sound like I'm not excited to go. Basically the moral of this story is that I really need to chill out and stop worrying about the implications of my answers.
     Jokes aside, there is no single answer that fully describes how I feel about the next stage of my life, and I think that is why the question causes me so much anxiety. Yes, I'm happy to go, and yes sometimes I'm a little sad as well. Yes I'm excited to experience new things, and yes there are things I am sad to leave behind. It's a complicated way to feel, and I find it very difficult to explain fully within the context of casual small talk.
    Moving to Nome is in no way an impulsive decision. It is the result of a process that has taken many months, and that process was the result of events throughout my life that have made me the person I am right now. It is also the result of a ten page application, two stages of interviews, and three weeks of training. Over the past few months, I have had a lot of discussions with God, many of them full of questions and maybe a bit of complaining when the answers did not come right away. But when they finally did come, I trusted them, because I had been searching for them with my whole heart. That's how I feel about moving. Even though my human emotions will cause some homesickness and nostalgia, I can say with certainty that I am doing what I need to be doing right now.
     The next time someone asks me how I feel about moving to Nome, I'll probably just say I'm excited, and that will be very true. But maybe this would be a more complete answer; My brain is excited and sometimes overwhelmed, my heart is eager but nostalgic, but the most important thing is that my soul is at peace. And that has made all the difference.