Monday, October 16, 2017

Missionaries, Social Justice Warriors, and the Power of Words

     One of the reasons I love writing so much is that it gives me a way to think about the words I use very carefully before anyone else sees them. I can type them out, read over them, and change the things that don't sound exactly how I want them too. As a person who often feels very awkward when trying to communicate through talking, writing gives me a way to express myself more effectively. Words are very powerful, and once they've been said, they can never be unsaid. 
     A particularly powerful word that's been on my mind lately is the word missionary. Saying "I am a missionary" feels like such an honor and a privilege to me, and it is the best way I know to explain why I am here and what I am doing. However, I know that there are some people who want to do away with that word because of it's negative history. I completely understand why the word is not looked at in a positive light, but to me, it would be better to reclaim the definition of the word instead of abandoning it. 
    I'm different that a lot of other people in my cohort. I don't have a college degree, first off. I also have no experience doing any kind of social justice work. What lead me to this program were two mission trips and a feeling that that's what I needed to be doing full time. When I heard the phrase social justice being used frequently at training, I was confused and slightly uncomfortable.
     It took me a while to realize that my reservations about the phrase social justice were a result of my own internalized prejudice and insecurity. In our modern world where social media dominates the conversation, "social justice warrior" has somehow become synonymous with politically liberal, and I grew up in a place where quite frankly, to many people, liberal may as well be a four letter word. So when I heard this phrase at a training event for a missionary program, I had an internal struggle because I had only heard this phrase in a political context, and I wanted to be a missionary, not a political activist. I also must admit that I still struggle with a bit of insecurity, although not nearly as much as I used to. The insecure part of me worried that if I was associated with a program promoting social justice, my friends would turn on me and my entire hometown would shun me. I know that sounds dramatic, but that's what the insecure part of my brain was trying to tell me.
     As I was reflecting on my reservations about this phrase, I realized that I didn't actually know the true definition of it. My negative feelings towards it were based solely on what I heard from the people around me. So, I decided to look it up. Social Justice: Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. 
     Oh. Well that's not so bad. It actually sounds like a good thing, aligned with a lot of principles taught in the Bible. If I had actually taken the time to understand the true definition of the phrase instead of basing my opinions on what I heard from other people, I would have realized sooner that social justice is not just a political buzzword. It is a principle that is perfectly in line with what I believe to be important.
     One of the greatest pieces of advice I received at GMF training was to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This has been running through my mind as I wrestle with understanding that missionaries in the past have negatively affected the title, but also feeling that I want a title that reflects the fact that I am on God's mission. I don't have it all figured out yet. I just know that the reason why I got here hasn't changed. I still feel like this is exactly where I am supposed to be, and this is what I'm supposed to be doing. 
     My preconceived notion of social justice changed when I took the time to understand it's true definition, and I learned a lesson from that. Wrestling with loaded words and phrases isn't always fun for me, but it is beneficial once it's done. It's all part of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, which is something I am still learning to do.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Little Pilgrim Who Learned

    Recently I came across a picture of me from a play in elementary school, probably around Thanksgiving. I don't remember much about this play, other than wanting to be a Native American because I thought they had better costumes than the pilgrims. I also vaguely remember that this play cast the Native Americans and pilgrims as great friends who learned to get along, share resources, and of course had that lovely Thanksgiving meal together.
     I have since discovered, first through a college history course and then through other life experiences that the history that I was taught in elementary school, and the history that was represented in this play, is quite simply false. Christopher Columbus did not "discover" America, and the vast majority of European settlers were not kind to Native Americans. I don't know exactly why I was taught such an inaccurate version of historical events, although I could offer up a few guesses if I really wanted to.
     I don't say all of this to criticize the teachers that taught me, or the education system during my childhood, although I do hope that things have changed and students are now being taught a more truthful history lesson. I could write all day about why it's an issue that inaccurate history was taught in a public school, but that's not my intention right now.
     I am thankful that I had opportunities to unlearn and relearn this part of history, and I also got an added lesson from that process. Sometimes we have a certain view of the world, and then we learn new things and our view needs to be altered. I used to think this was a negative thing, but I'm starting to realize that it can actually be a very good thing when my views are challenged and changed.
     Tomorrow, there will be events in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day here in Nome. I did not know this until today, but to my understanding, that is what the former Columbus Day is now called in Alaska. I know that there are those who will roll their eyes at this, but I look forward to seeing how this day is celebrated, and I also look forward to all of the opportunities life offers to challenge what I think I know, and discover how much I still have to learn.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Trusting in the Transition.

     If you've ever worked with a group of young children in any capacity, you're probably familiar with the chaos that happens during the time of transitioning between activities. Let's say they're doing a craft, and it's time to go to music class. First you have to tell them that craft is over, which will cause at least one of them to cry. Then you will probably want them to stand in a line, which means you will need to settle a passionate argument about whose turn it is to be the line leader. While you are playing referee, any children not involved in the argument will probably become bored and find ways to entertain themselves, such as poking each other in the eye and quite literally attempting to climb the walls. And yet somehow, the children usually do arrive at the next activity at some point, and soon all of the crying and fighting is forgotten until it's time to do it all again.  
     I feel that in a way, we are all like children in times of transition. Just when we've become comfortable with the way things are, a change comes along that we weren't expecting and throws everything off balance. Even if it's an exciting change like moving to a new place for a job you're passionate about, it still comes with difficult factors like saying goodbye to friends. While we may not express our disapproval of change as outwardly as children do, we certainly feel it, and it's not fun.
     I am probably not the best person to give advice on how to transition well. I'm highly emotional, and this becomes quite obvious whenever a big change is happening in my life. As excited as I was to move to Alaska, the actual process of saying "see you later" to friends and family resulted in many tears, most of which happened at inconvenient times. But while I may not be a professional transitioner yet, my recent move did give me plenty of experience, and some advice to pass along.
   The first piece of advice I have for surviving transition is to trust God's plan. I know that is much easier said than done, but it is important to remember that we are not in control, and God will never abandon us. This can be scary, but if we wait until we know the whole plan to take the first step, we'll never get anywhere.
     My second piece of advice is to learn from the transition. Since times of change often bring up negative emotions, it is tempting to get through them as quickly as possible and never look back. But there is always something to be learned each time a transition comes along. So take the lessons you learned in whatever stage you are leaving, and carry them with you into the next stage.
     And lastly and most importantly, if we learn nothing else from unexpected change, let's learn to be kind to each other. You're probably rolling your eyes over how corny that sounds, but I really believe it's true.  We can never know when our paths will cross and when they will separate again, so there's no time like the present to start treating each other well.

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.