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.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

More to the Story


     I love watching TED talks. Well, I guess maybe I love watching them if they're about a topic that interests me. There's something about listening to people speak intelligently about subjects they know a lot about that I find fascinating. A few days ago in a session here at training we watched a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, a novelist. She talked about how whenever she is introduced, there is a single story that accompanies the introduction of where she is from.
     A single story happens when a person or group of people becomes known for a single trait or action, usually because that is how they repeatedly get talked about. It is what happens when we let ourselves generalize and talk about "those people", as if every individual in a group is a clone of the other people in the group. It is what happens when we get a bad first impression of someone, and become convinced that the negative things we saw in that person are the only parts of them. It happens when every time we see an African child on T.V., they are emaciated and crying. After that being the picture I saw for most of my childhood, you can imagine what it was like to arrive in Togo to find many children laughing, playing, and singing.
     As a person who was born with something called a neural tube defect, in my case Spina Bifida, and as a person who is noticeably different than most people simply because of the way I walk, Adichie's talk resonated with me because I also do not want to be known for one part of my life that I have no control over.
     In a few days, I hope to become a commissioned missionary. I know that to some people, I will be the girl who listened to God's call, even though she was born with this pitiful affliction. Bless her heart. Maybe that's a bit harsh, but it is a story I have been told about myself throughout my life on many occasions, whether it was intentional or not. I know that it comes from a good place, most of the time, so I try to appreciate it. But I also don't want to be known only as the girl with the disability who did things despite her pitiful affliction, bless her heart.
     Yes, I was born with a "thing" that sets me apart in some ways from the general population, and yes I will become a missionary. But that is far from the only part of my story, and I do not want it to become my single story. Yes, the fact that a disability is part of my life did help me learn to notice people who aren't being included, and it helped me relate to people who feel different or left out, which is an asset for someone in the mission field. But other than that, I really don't feel those two parts of my life are dependent on each other. I fully believe God has a plan for each of our lives and I don't want to speculate too much about what my life would be like if certain things were different. I just think that these are important parts of me who make me who I am, but they are not always directly related, nor are they anywhere close to being the whole story of who I am.
     Please know that I try to gracefully accept every compliment that is given to me, and I know that people who see me as an over-comer of my disability are just as full of love and good intentions as those who feel no need to mention it. There are plenty of things in my life that would have been much easier if I was an "able bodied" person, and perhaps I should acknowledge that more often. It's just never been what I want to be known for.
     I know that I cannot control what story gets told about me, perhaps that is why I find it so important to tell my own story as much as possible. And yes, I need to learn to be graceful no matter someone else interprets my life. But as I set out on the next chapter of my life, serving as a Global Mission Fellow in Nome, Alaska, it is my goal to remember that each person I meet does not have just one single story, but many stories that intertwine together to make them who they are. That's the way God made us, complex and diverse, and I think that is something worth honoring.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Unlikely Friendships

     This morning as I was riding to church with some new friends from training, I was thinking that Atlanta looks familiar in a way, like something I've seen in a movie. Eventually, I remembered that this is where one of my favorite movies, Driving Ms. Daisy, was filmed. If you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it, but basically it is the story of an older southern, white, Jewish woman who is reluctantly driven around by an African American chauffeur that her son hires for her after it becomes clear that she can no longer drive herself. Although she is extremely resistant to accepting his help at first, the two eventually form a bond, leading up to one of the films most touching moments when Ms. Daisy tells the chauffeur she once despised, "Hoke, you're my best friend."
     Although the movie takes place during the civil rights movement, some of the social tensions it explores are still present today. I'm sure you know that, because those tensions are talked about it all the time. We hear about them on the news, we read about them on social media, we listen to sermons about them in church. I personally have sat in some really challenging discussions about them during these first two weeks of training. So, since the problem clearly isn't that we aren't aware or don't care about the tensions that separate us as human beings, why are they still so prevalent in our society?
     That's to big of a question for someone like me to answer in one blog post, but I might have a small part of the much larger answer. We can talk forever about how we all need to accept and love each other, and it's definitely an important thing to discuss, but nothing changes until we actually do it.
     Because of the mission trips I've been on, I already have some friends from other countries and cultures, and through Global Mission Fellows I am now gaining many more. I'm ashamed to admit this, but today I posted a picture of me with some of those friends, and then wondered what people from my hometown will think of the fact that I am the only white person in that picture. Will they think it's strange that I would befriend people who look different than me, will they think I've got a point to prove? But after thinking about it, I realized that me worrying about these things does absolutely nothing except waste time I could be using to think about more productive things. So, I'll continue to get to know my new friends, and I'll be proud of the pictures I take with them. Like Ms. Daisy and Hoke, we can be friends no matter how different our backgrounds are. And with those friendships, we'll begin to change the injustices of our world.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Happy Soul

    I am at the end of my third day of three weeks of Global Mission Fellows training, and as I begin to write this  I've just gotten back from dinner. I've never doubted my decision to apply for this program, at least not so significantly that I can remember it right now.
     But as I sat at dinner tonight, having a conversation with a few women around my age, this decision was affirmed in a big way. During my conversation with them, I shared some thoughts with these like-minded people, and listened to them share theirs. Even though the conversation wandered to some controversial topics, it remained respectful. I did a lot of listening, and I felt heard. 
     If you know me well, you probably know that I am very much an introvert. I'm usually more of a listener than a talker, so I was surprised at how much I was contributing to the conversation tonight. We've talked at this training about stepping forward and stepping back in conversation. I was comfortable enough tonight to step forward at times, and they were gracious enough to step back and listen. I didn't realize until it was over how much I had been longing for more of this kind of interaction in my life.
     I've been through some personal struggles these past few months which don't need to be named individually right now. But I know my soul has been discontent. Here today at training, my soul is happy. Even though I was busy for many hours today, and spent two of those hours learning about and discussing Methodist theology, which by itself is enough to make anybody mentally exhausted, my soul is happy. I am going to do what I love, I am going to be a missionary.
     Maybe you're going through a hard time, like I have been for these past few months. Whatever the reason, whatever the circumstances, I pray you will soon reach a happier time, and come to a place where your soul is happy and content. Even though I feel happy right now, I know very well how hard it is to be in a time when you are struggling to find happiness and contentment, for reasons that you might not even be able to put into words.As I come to the end of this long day, my brain and my body are tired, but my soul is content. I'm not sure if I'll ever become an expert of Methodist theology, but I'm not really worried about it right now. As one of my new friends told me today, we'll figure it out together. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Great Expectations

     I remember last summer after a youth retreat, we were asked to say some things about it in church, including what our favorite part of the retreat was. I asked if I could say my favorite part was the car rides to and from the trip. I played it off as a joke, but there was a lot of truth in it.
     Don't get me wrong, that whole trip was full of great moments. But I was expecting great moments during the worship services, and at the cross on top of the mountain. I had expectations for those moments, but I never thought about the car rides. Ironically, the part of that trip that had the biggest impact on my life, and the part I will remember the most, is the part I had no expectations for.
     I think we've all got these pictures in our heads of what our lives are supposed to look like, just like I had a mental picture of what that retreat was supposed to look like. Milestones are supposed to be met at a certain time, friends and families are supposed to always be close. When these expectations don't match up with reality, it can feel deeply disappointing, even devastating. I know this from experience.
     I've had to learn that some things in life just aren't the way I wish they could be, and I think it is okay to feel saddened and disappointed by that realization. I've also discovered that while I'm busy having expectations, often the most memorable parts of life are the parts I never expected at all. Sometimes the closest friendships and strongest relationships bloom from regular moments, and sometimes the moments we remember most don't happen when we reach our expected destination, but rather when we're on the way there. 
      I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with having expectations. But I am slowly learning that my happiness should not depend on my expectations being met. Let yourself spend some time mourning the loss of the things that aren't meant to be, but not so much time that you miss out on the things, the relationships, and the moments that are. I guess what I'm saying is, don't get so caught up in waiting for those mountaintop views that you miss what is happening on the car ride to the mountains. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Togo, the Sled Dog Who Saved Nome.

     When I was really little, I remember watching a movie that I really liked called Balto. It was an animated movie based on the real sled dog who was famous for his role in transporting medicine to remote parts of Alaska during a diphtheria epidemic in the early 1900's. There is an annual sled dog race in honor of those dogs each year, and the finish line for that race is in Nome, Alaska, where I will be moving in August. I also learned recently that there was another important dog on Balto's team, and his name was Togo. As you probably already know, I spent three weeks in Togo, Africa on my last mission trip, and that is where I decided that I wanted to pursue mission work full time.
     So why am I telling you all of this? It's not just to give you a history lesson, but you're welcome for that added bonus. It's because  I don't think of all of these things as random coincidences. In my mind, finding out about that dog who shared a name with the last place I went on a mission trip was an affirmation that Nome, where he delivered life saving medicine, truly is my next mission field. It's also a reminder of how God uses a bunch of seemingly little things working together to carry out His plans.
      I don't like to talk about growing up with a disability very often, because that's not how I want to be defined. And compared to many children, I had it pretty good, so I don't want to over-dramatize the truth and make it seem like I had some awful, traumatic childhood. Overall, it didn't bother me or even slow me down that much.  But there were a few times when things got pretty rough for a little while, and as I look forward to this exciting move to Alaska, I can't help but remember those times. These times revolved around hospital stays and long recoveries, with a fair share of setbacks and a few brushes with some pretty scary stuff, like Staph infection and one particularly scary allergic reaction to anesthesia. It was in those times that, though I was completely unaware of it, I was developing skills that I will need as a missionary.
        I was learning to trust God when things like recovering from surgery weren't happening on the timeline I would have preferred. Admittedly, I am still working on this one. I was also learning what it is like to feel isolated and alone, which is why I think I am quick to notice other people who may be feeling the same way. Most of all, I was starting to understand how vital my faith is to me, which led me to wanting to share that faith to others.
      One unfortunate side effect of going through some hard times is that I seem to have an odd habit of not processing good things very well. It's hard not to constantly be wondering when some unexpected hard time is going to derail my plans. But I'm slowly learning to let myself fully enjoy good things. I know that inevitably there will be more hard times, as there are for everyone, but if there's anything my life has taught me so far, it's that, with faith, I can make it through hard times.
     I'm so excited about the direction my life is moving in right now. And though it has taken me a long time to get to this point, I'm beginning to be thankful for hard times in my life, because now I know how important they were.

(Left) A scene from a hospital stay. There were plenty of less idyllic pictures of this time, but I decided to go with this one, where I was almost smiling, thanks to my cool new Kindle and some pretty strong painkillers. (Right) I had no idea watching this movie as a child that I would live in Nome one day.