Beth in Gambia

Two years ago, a miracle happened to someone I love. My cousin Beth, who had faced the loss of a son, her parents, and her marriage all in a very short period of time, began a new life.

She could have started a new career, traveled, embarked on some self discovery…these are all things that people in traumatic transition do. In fact, she did all three and more. My cousin joined the Peace Corps and became a whole new Beth. Actually, the same Beth, only more. That happens when you open your heart and leap into life with both feet, which is what she did. I am so proud of everything about her experience.

They love her in Sabi.

Beth doing her favorite thing…holding a baby.

She’s ending her two years of service in The Gambia, where she learned a new language, lived with a local family in Sabi, promoted family health, and designed a new health education program that partners with the favorite local soccer club. Below is a reflection that gives the slightest glimpse of her experience. And if you are inspired, there is a link to help provide education for women and girls in The Gambia.

Haja Saray Gerew is a 28-year-old wife, mother, and Sabi daughter who was taken out of school after completing 9th grade to get married. Educating girls is considered a waste when their role is to marry, have children, and maintain the family. Many girls accept and perform their duties with a quiet acquiescence. Some are bitter and resentful. Most have no chance to change their circumstance.

Haja, I think, felt some of all these reactions. However, she did manage to stay involved in her community by being available every time she was asked to assist with development work where literacy and language translation were needed. She worked with several NGOs and government programs aimed at improving conditions in Sabi, helping with everything from registering births to health education to assisting with administrative tasks. She did this willingly and without compensation, always in addition to her duties as a wife and mother. And in so doing she did in fact continue her education.

When I met Haja, it was in response to my search for a language tutor. We had a few lessons and it was apparent that although a horribly inept language student, I would in fact begin a meaningful working and personal relationship with this young woman. Her enthusiasm at the possibilities of using her education and experience to assist in Peace Corps project work was palpable. Her passion for girls’ education was an energy I wanted very much to harness.

Haja spent many a time crying in frustration at her lack of opportunity to continue her education. We talked a lot, much of the time I just listened, feeling rather helpless as to how to help and hoping that maybe just being a friend was something. I remember one conversation, though, where I reminded her that the one thing no one could take from her was her ability to learn. “Haja, you can read, you can write, you are literate…you can learn, maybe not in a traditional classroom but if you are willing I will help you…start with books and start with your own children…teaching them will help you.” It was a conversation we would continue over the next months.

I began to research adult education. If this were America I would know what to do: contact the community college, enroll her in a GED program etc… But this is not America so what to do? I discovered that she could take the WASSCE exams as a “private student” and, if she did well enough, could get “credit” for academic knowledge just like graduates of senior secondary school. That was our first step. Haja contacted a former teacher, got all the necessary information for the process, obtained study material, and took 5 exams in September of 2014. The results were expected in December, but we had to wait until February …3 credits and 2 passes…better than many graduates. I think she was literally walking on air for the next weeks.

The response from her community of family, friends, and Sabi leadership has been overwhelmingly positive.  I was a little surprised at her reluctance to share the information with her husband’s family. In her community, pursuing education makes her “different” and therefore a target to very real, though subtle persecution.  Sameness and fairness are highly valued in this culture, therefore to be educated and literate can be seen as “different” and “other” and a threat. In spite of all that, Haja has embraced the challenge to continue and move forward. She wants to be a nurse.

Haja is committed to helping Sabi, her village, but it seemed the best short-term option was for her and her children to move to the Kombo area where she and her children could continue their education. With financial support, she and another Sabi friend found a residence to rent and we enrolled all the children in school at Grace International a well-developed private school with an excellent reputation. Their progress has been amazing.

YOU CAN BE A PART OF THIS MIRACLE! Beth started an education fund to help Haja, her children, and other women and girls in The Gambia pursue education – it is called Gambia Rising. You can get information and make a donation here. All of the money goes directly to educating girls and women in the Gambia. On the website you can read stories about some of the girls you can help – and direct your funds directly to them.

Thank you Beth! And thanks to all of you who make miracles happen.

Bench-Pressed

Today it is Syrians. In days past, it was Iraqis, Central Americans, and Cubans. I’ve meet some from Burma and Sudan in my hometown. They are refugees, asylum seekers. Even with the sound turned down on my screen, pictures of families making long, harsh journeys across continents is jarring – whatever they are fleeing must be horrible to go through that.

And it is.

By the time we meet them (in the media or in real life) refugees are far from home, disoriented, disheveled, and desperate. But once, they were people with families, jobs, and hope. They don’t come here because they want to leave home – they come because they are fleeing for their lives. This story from Morning Edition on September 21 puts it in perspective – when your persecutors come for your children, staying home is not an option.

As I’ve listened to stories of the newest waves of refugees and asylum seekers, I think not only of their journeys, but of their prospects once they arrive. And thanks to my friend Susan Yarbrough’s wonderful book Bench-Pressed, I have a better understanding – and a softer heart – for persistence and faith it takes to both seek and provide safe haven.

For nearly 18 years, Susan Yarbrough was a United States Immigration Judge and heard thousands of asylum cases each year. The five cases she describes in the book – one for each of the statutory grounds upon which she could grant asylum – are heartrending and as a reader you can begin to understand why she says the work “changed the course of my emotional and spiritual life.” When I met Susan, I was immediately struck by her commitment to radical hospitality, welcoming the stranger, which is something she both brought to her service on the bench and also something that developed as she encountered the people who came before her.

The name of the book – Bench-Pressed – has a wonderful double meaning. She describes her years of training with weights and the vulnerability one feels lying on a narrow bench lifting a heavy metal bar straight up above your body. The work of hearing asylum cases is like that, a heavy burden that makes one feel vulnerable under its crushing weight. Yet she recalls that the Yiddish word bentch, which means “blessing,” is also an apt description of that work. Reflecting on her time as an immigration judge she writes, “all the people into whose faces I had looked as they sat on the witness stand near me had indeed blessed me in some way or another.”

And so she tells the stories of Esteban, Josué, Khalid, Elena, and Daniel. Their struggles are particular, yet they have happened and are still happening to thousands of people around the world. People crossing the Rio Grande and the Atlantic Ocean – and streaming into Europe from Syria – today are also fleeing persecution on of account of race, religion, nationality, social group, and political opinion.

Bench-Pressed is moving because of the individual stories, and also because of the compassion we see in the way the cases are handled. I don’t always have a sense that the slow-moving systems that “process” immigrants and refugees have any humanity to them, but these stories and Susan Yarbrough’s witness of her own experience teach me otherwise. Get this book. Read it. And then go out and offer some radical hospitality of your own to the strangers among us.

Love’s Banquet

Once, she sipped from the cup we all shared
Now, we gather round the same table without her
Yet with her, in her memory
Table extended, chairs added
An overflow crowd of lives touched
This banquet is a foretaste
And even in grief, we can taste the sweetness
of the next cup we will share

__________________________________________
This weekend, I went to the funeral for a woman I knew at my former parish. There were a mix of people – some I knew, some I did not – all of us connected because of Cynthia and her daughter. I was asked to read one of the lessons and here is what Isaiah told us:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

The first reading at the funeral was about rejoicing at a lavish banquet. It makes you take another look at your surroundings to hear words like that. On the way into the service, I was ready to share grief with everyone else there. The sense of loss was there, but there was also a palpable sense of abundance. It was more than the number of chairs in the room (and we had to keep adding because more and more people came) and more than the cookies eaten at the reception afterwards. The abundance came from all of us together being more than the sum of our parts. That’s what love does.

 

A little community

Ball moss isn’t really moss. It is an air plant that lives off of humidity and dust, water and soil – the same stuff of which I am made. These botanical spheres seem self-sufficient,  they don’t really need any other plants for their survival. Yet, they usually live in trees. Maybe they do it for the company. That little ball of thin leaves is really a community of plants holding tightly to each other, and also shooting out long-stemmed flowers to share themselves with the wider world. Island plants that are really not islands at all.

I’ve been using a different lens lately to consider human nature. One view I’m seeing is the nature of our physical selves – humans are both corporal and corporate. We are separate bodies and connected communities – at the same time. You and I can’t be truly human without being both. Our nourishment comes not only from water and soil, but also from holding tightly together and sending our blossoms out to the wider world. It’s how we are made and what we are made for.

Well Spring

Here are the ingredients for a great retreat:

First, the drive. It was supposed to be just over an hour away through the Texas Hill Country just outside of Austin. On a gorgeous sunny day I was listening to James Taylor’s new CD and driving down a stretch of highway toward a couple days of relaxing with new friends. But because Google didn’t really know what the heck it was talking about and a bridge was washed out on one really important turn, I got lost and it took 2.5 hours. Still – a gorgeous day!

True friends find you when you are lost.

(If you are going to get lost in the Hill Country, I suggest you have a friend like my buddy John who tracked me down, got lost (again) with me and then found our destination with time to spare before dinner was served.)

Next, setting. We stayed in a lodge at the Wellspring Retreat Center which has retreat-worthy sofas, rocking chairs, porches, and views. It was impossible to look the wrong way – every direction gave up vistas of rolling hills and climbable live oaks. At night, the sky was filled with stars and it was dark enough to see them surrounding the crescent moon. Probably best, at least for this sun-weary Texan, was a full day of cloudy weather. A rare treat.

View from the porch – and clouds to make it perfect.

But really, the heart of any retreat is the people. All of us are just meeting each other, just starting out on our theological educational journey in a new environment. Even those of us (like me) who already live in Austin are making huge adjustments and jumping into the unknown. So it was important and also comforting to get to know everyone in a setting other than campus – with its proximity to classrooms, library, and  work-study assignments. The slow rhythm of group meetings, relaxed worship, and down time made it possible for us to know a whole lot more about our fellow travelers and the amazing life experiences each brings with them. That, a multi-day game of Risk, and nightly parties in the parking lot.

I’m still not sure any of us is ready for classes to start on Monday, but they will whether we are ready or not. And in addition to all the information we received during orientation, we now have each other. Game on!

 

dis- re- oriented

All this week I am in orientation for seminary, but as our Academic Dean observed today, it feels more like disorientation. Life is being turned upside-down as I go from my old life-rhythm to a new one. I am taking in so much new information it is overwhelming – I know I won’t remember it all. There is excitement and grief in all these changes. I love being a student and being on this beautiful campus, but am getting teary thinking about the time I will lose with my kids when I am all the way across town as they get off the school bus in the afternoons. By the end of September, we will all have a new normal, but for now things still feel out of balance. Unsettled.

I was thinking about all of this today in the first of three chapel services. (That right there is a big change.) The chapel is an architectural metaphor for our life here at seminary. There is a firm floor and a strong stone wall on one side. But the cross, instead of hanging on a wall behind the altar, is on the other side of a large window, not inside the chapel but pulling our eyes to the world outside it. It is a visual reminder that all of us here are preparing to leaving this place from the moment we enter, we are being called into other roles, other lives.

As you sit in the chapel, you can’t help but notice that across from the stone wall is a wall of windows. So, in this quiet space while you sing or pray or check your phone for email, you can’t help but notice squirrels playing in the trees or butterflies checking out the flowers in the garden or other people walking by. The busy world is out there with the cross, calling for your attention.

At times it seems like all the activity on the other side of the window is a distraction. But at other times, it feels like a reminder, “Oh yeah, that is why I am here.” None of us is here to remain in a permanent blissful, contemplative state, we are here to get information and hone skills that we will practice out there on the other side of the window.

So, in fact, my new friends and I are being oriented to a new environment and disoriented because everything is new and unsettling. But we are also being reoriented, turned to face a new direction, learning to pay attention to the same old things in a new way and from a new perspective.

Of course, it occurred to me as the day was ending that when I leave this place next spring, I’ll have to do this dis- re- orienting all over again.

Things I will miss about CPE

I’ve been both poetic and snarky about my summer as a hospital chaplain. There are some things about it that I will not miss at all. But for the most part, it has been an amazing experience for which I am deeply grateful. So, in no particular order, here are the things that have made my summer wonderful:

Lee Ann, Megan, JP, Henry, Susan, Mike, Nadine, and me.

Did I say no particular order? That goes for the end of the list, but number one in all respects is my team! We are seven interns and one supervisor. Among us are many lifetimes of experience – a former federal judge, retired nurse, social worker – all focused on sitting with whoever needed a shoulder to lean on or an ear to listen. I learned from each and every one of them how to be a better pastor and a better person. We’ve been with each other through grief, struggle, frustration, joy, and relief. We had a lot of fun and every member of the team knows that a sense of humor is the number one survival skill in stressful jobs. A sense of humor and hot cookies (see below).

I am about to be a student again, and after that get on the lowest rung of the church ladder to start a new career. So pardon me if one of the things I will miss from this summer is the power trip of my badge. With this baby, I could swipe my way into three emergency rooms, gain access to the highly secure NICU, and, most important, get a 10% discount at the cafeteria – that’s 10% off every slice of pie and cake I had while on call. And 10% off hot cookies.

Nurses. Sure, I’m impressed with the doctors, clinical assistants and social workers I met this summer, but I was blown away by every single nurse with whom I worked. They all did more than attend to the health of their patients – I saw them cry with parents who lost a child, hold hands with dying patients, negotiate with families in conflict, and have conversations with premature babies. If a chaplain shows up unexpectedly in the middle of a crisis, you can bet it was a nurse who made the call. Even at the end of a 12-hour shift, these women and men can still keep their cool in an emergency and soothe a child visiting a sick parent.

I’m going to miss my patients and their families. In some units, patients are only there for a day or two, but in my units (antepartum and NICU) there are patients and families who have been in the hospital all summer long. I’ve gotten to know them and see them thru that strange mix of anxiety and hope that is part of high-risk pregnancies and birth. I “met” some babies before they were born. After I leave, they will still be working hard at what babies do – learning to eat, getting bigger and stronger. I won’t know how they are doing or when they go home, but I won’t be able to stop imagining it…All of them have blessed me tremendously.

Honestly, I have never worked in a place with so many polite and friendly people. Every single one of them will offer you directions if you look the slightest bit lost. Nurse, administrator, janitor – doesn’t matter. You cannot go down a hallway without smile after smile after “how are you today?” And if you choose to answer, they will stop and listen. It is contagious and I hope I stay infected.

Y’all, I may never be able to work anywhere ever again that does not have hot cookies at least once a week. Huge-as-your-face hot cookies. And co-workers who page you so that you don’t miss out on the yumminess.

I love the theological discussions that happen in seminary – in class and on the fly – but the discussions in CPE have been different. We weren’t talking about theological concepts in a vacuum, isolated from real life, we were living through applied theology. Where is God in the midst of suffering? How do you find hope in a trying situation? What resources help people cope with stress? Or…How can I be more “there” for other people? How do I better identify their needs? How can I stop trying to fix people and just be with them?

To my colleagues, my babies, the nurses, and the cookies: Thanks so much from the bottom of my heart.

Full Moon Baptism

If Austin were a religion, swimming in Barton Springs Pool would be its baptism – and there is nothing that will make you feel more fully Austin-ized that taking that leap during the full moon. If you happen to do it after the setting sun has raised temps into triple digits, all the better.

Tonight, my daughter and I made the trek to the spiritual center of Austin, passing games of ultimate frisbee and zorb ball soccer (if you haven’t seen that…google it, but make sure you are sitting down). We were there for the cool, clear water that bubbles up through the limestone. We were there to hang out with hundreds of people of all ages and bathing suit styles (or not). We were there to howl.

Shortly after sunset, when the full moon rises, everyone at the pool begins to howl like wolves. Simultaneously stunning and hilarious, it is deeply weird, which is why it is so perfectly emblematic of my city. If you are lucky, a couple of our famous bats will fly overhead. After about an hour of swimming and howling, Austin has been tattooed on your soul. You’re in for good. And unlike other forms of baptism, this one can been repeated as often as you like.