Saturday, August 19, 2017

Waking up White

I am half-way through the book Waking Up White, by Debby Irving. I heartily recommend the book to anyone, and appreciate hearing Debbie’s story of her long search to understand race and its impact in America. The book is thought-provoking and disturbing in good ways – I think it is always good when our assumptions or the status-quo are challenged so that we have to really think about what we are doing and why. I wanted to share a few things from the book that have stood out to me so far or have been helpful.

One idea that stands out is the idea that both discrimination and privilege are components of racism. Irving says, “Just as time has compounded disadvantages for people living on the downside of systemic racism, it has compounded the advantages I and other white people enjoy. My life is built on family members able to get citizenship without a fight, land grants for free, GI Bill benefits, low rate loans, good education, and solid health care. Each generation has set up the starting point for the next, perpetuating the illusion that white people are more successful, not beneficiaries of an inequitable system.” I admit that I have somehow had the notion that racism was just an act or perspective of discrimination in the present—conveniently ignoring the fact that if there is privilege for some, then there is discrimination or lack of privilege for others, even if that is the result of actions taken in the past.

Living in places like Congo and now South Sudan, we are challenged often by the reality of our privilege while living in countries where poverty is pervasive and extreme. I never had to stay home from school because my parents could not pay the school fees, nor was forced to flee my home alone when it was attacked. I grew up speaking a language with a wealth of educational materials and came to know early the incredible love and grace of God. Sometimes the disparity is overwhelming as we recognize we do not deserve anything more than anyone else of any nationality. We are humbled and grateful for many brothers and sisters in Christ who are materially poor but who inspire us, teach us, and welcome us to join them in seeking to make the Kingdom of God known.

The second concept from the book is that “…Not talking about race [is] a privilege available only to white people.” This really struck me – I admit that exploring my own privilege or the ongoing effects of systemic racism in the U.S. are uncomfortable subjects that I try to avoid – but to realize that some people in America are daily facing the brunt end of discrimination while I can ignore it was really disturbing. “This widespread phenomenon of white people wanting to guard themselves against appearing stupid, racist, or radical has resulted in an epidemic of silence from people who care deeply about justice and love from their fellow human beings”. How often do you have conversations about race (unless something like Charlottesville happens)? When I do not feel well-versed in a complex and controversial issue, I tend to stay silent. So this is my fumbling effort to put a few thoughts out there to start a conversation, given that we are far from the U.S. and not able to have these conversations in person.

Finally, this book explores what it means to be “white” in America, and the history of racial perceptions. Irving says, “understanding whiteness, regardless of class, is key to understanding racism.” What are my particular cultural values, and how does that impact how I perceive others or the assumptions I might make? Of course, one or two hundred years ago in America there was much more distinction and discrimination between some of the European immigrants – the Irish, the Germans, or the Swedish had their section of town and may have felt discriminated against by other groups. But gradually these distinctions blurred and gave way to discriminations against other races. We, as a country, have come a long way from the legal racial segregation and oppression that used to occur in our country. Perhaps the white supremacist gathering such as in Charlottesville is a visible expression of what you could call “extreme” racism. But I wonder if there are many more subtle ways – even subconscious—that we perpetuate racist systems or legacies that give us ‘privilege’ over others? Last year Bob and I started reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. It is a long, heady, book, but he does a masterful job of laying out the history of African Americans in the U.S., particularly regarding education and economic opportunities. Understanding our own history and the particular history of other groups that we intersect with helps us identify our cultural values and how they might clash with the values of others.

These are just a few things that are ruminating in my mind. If some of them resonate with you or challenge you, I encourage you to read the book or explore in other ways. I welcome your thoughts and feedback as I (and we) continue to learn about the tragic mistakes of the past, our own faults in the present, and seek to live lives that communicate God’s heart of love and justice to each person created in His image.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Life with the Epstein-Barr Virus

In the August 10th entry of the popular devotional, Jesus Calling, Sarah Young writes “Energy and time are precious, limited entities.  Therefore, you need to use them wisely, focusing on what is truly important.”

Seven weeks ago I was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV).  Commonly associated with and commonly the cause of Mononucleosis (Mono), this virus is very common but only manifests itself in a small percentage of the population.  Essentially it renders one weak, tired and achy and it can take weeks and even months (and in some cases even longer) for the body to fully recover.  A former colleague from African Enterprise (AE) recently wrote, telling me of his experience with EBV.  He contracted the illness a week before his wedding and was essentially “man down” the first year of marriage.  It took him a full year to recover and five years before he could safely call EBV a memory.  In another case, a friend contracted EBV three years ago and is still dealing with the challenges of this virus which has morphed into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Does that sound encouraging?  No, it doesn’t, and it has not been an easy road for Kristi and I to walk these past three months.  Towards the end of June, our doctor in Nairobi gave us the go-ahead to return to Juba, but he cautioned me to take it easy and to “tithe it out.”  Since our return, we have been balancing my getting rest with learning a new language, building relationships in the community, and simply getting to know our environs.  I have begun a daily log whereby I record how well I sleep each night, how many naps I take each day and the length of each nap, each activity I do and how it affects me, and I rate my energy level each day on a scale of 1 – 10.  My energy level hasn’t been over 7.5 since I began recording eight weeks ago, and averages at about 6.5 per week.  I try to average 2 hours of rest each day, napping.  Our hope had been that I would be 90% strong before returning to Juba.  That didn’t happen…so here we are, having made the decision to return but still waiting for and seeking to promote healing, doing our best to navigate this place under less than ideal circumstances. 

So, how does one deal with a health challenge while adjusting to a new culture and language while also still grieving the loss of ministry and identity in another place?  Well, I am no expert and please do not look to me as a guide.  On many days I feel that God has dealt us an unfair hand.  It often feels like life has become unfair and the scales of the Universe have tipped against us.  “Why?” is a regular refrain on our lips.  We have prayed for healing as have countless others, but it feels like the heavens are silent. 

What I am learning, rather slowly and obstinately, is that the challenge and dark companion of an illness like EBV can actually become a teacher.  In the entry entitled “For a Friend on the Arrival of Illness,” the late John O’Donahue in his wonderful little book called To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, writes most poignantly regarding illness, saying “You feel that against your will a stranger has married your heart.”  Those words have bounced off the echo chambers of my heart - so true!  While O’Donahue uses poetic turn of phrase to identify the pain and frustration of illness, he also encourages the friend to embrace the illness as a companion and teacher.  He encourages one to listen to the illness which can illuminate new qualities that will emerge within you.  He encourages the friend to ask why the illness came, what it wants you to know, what quality of space it wants to create in you, and to ask what do you need to learn to become more fully yourself so that your presence will shine in the world. 

Going back to the quote from Sarah Young’s devotional, I am learning how truly valuable and precious time and energy are.  I am learning that both are limited entities, having to choose only what is needful and necessary and not doing many of the things I would otherwise do and enjoy doing.  I cannot exercise as I normally would, and I am obliged to limit my outings from our apartment, only doing what feels most important.  Throughout the day I am constantly napping and needing to forgo the desire to be productive.  As an example of my limited energy, last Sunday we went to worship at a local church.   The entire outing was about four hours long and it took me two full days to recover. 

On a positive note, when I do go out, I tend to notice things and enjoy the experience more than I might otherwise.  Simple conversations and experiences are perhaps cherished more because they are in short supply.  I cannot say that I am good at embracing this new way of experiencing life.  There are many days when I feel somber and depressed at my current life state; I just want to curl up into a cocoon and bid the world “adieu.”  However, I am slowly learning to accept this illness as a companion and teacher that will indeed develop important qualities in me, qualities like patience, compassion and humility. 


If you are a person who prays, I welcome your prayer for me to learn all that God wants to teach me through this illness.  Of course, I also welcome prayers for healing and full recovery.  Whatever happens, my hope is that my life will be surrendered to God and bring Him all the glory.  Thank you for reading.                 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Taking the plunge

This week we worked with our Arabic helper to create a ‘text’ for a conversation about family. We learned to briefly introduce each other, say that we have no children, and describe our families in the US. We then would ask about the other person’s family – are they married? Do they have children? Are their parents living, and where? Do they have brothers and sisters? We recorded our language teacher saying all of this, so that we could listen to his pronunciation when we practiced and mimic it. We rehearsed with each other, pretending to be various people. All of this working up to going out in the neighborhood to practice.

But going out in the neighborhood to practice a text feels intimidating sometimes. Will we draw a crowd? Will I understand what people are saying to me? Can I make this a real conversation, not just repeating memorized lines to get through it? So this morning we prayed that God would lead us to the right people, and make this an encouraging experience. And we reminded ourselves that our goal in learning Juba Arabic is to connect with people – to be able to communicate and understand them.

As we headed out this morning, we saw Mary, one of the ladies who cleans our apartment, as we were going down the stairs. We asked if we could talk to her about family, and Bob launched into the text. People passed by on the stairs and some of the security guards came to join the conversation. These are people we know and see regularly, and all of them are excited that we are learning Arabic, so it was an encouraging place to start.

Kristi with two women who work in our apartment building – our favorite conversation partners!

Then, we took the plunge, heading across the street to an outdoor market area. We were able to engage a few of the venders, learning their names and now learning a little about their families. We found Mary, a woman we had met before who has a tea stall, sitting with some of her customers. Once we started greeting them in Arabic, we were kind of a novelty and they were eager to talk. We introduced ourselves, and began our discussion about family. Some responded with long explanations about what their children were doing or the challenges of life, and we were quickly lost. We’ve only been studying Arabic for a whopping three weeks now!

We decided to stop for tea at Mary’s stall. This provided an opportunity to get to know her a bit more. As we sipped our tea and coffee, other customers came into the stall, and joined the conversation. Bob was able to talk to a policeman who sat next to him, who is based at the police station right next to our apartment. Mary does not speak English, but we were pleasantly surprised at how much we were able to understand with our limited Arabic. As we ask people about their families, we are often confronted with the hard reality that many of their family members have died in South Sudan’s long conflict, or that their children or siblings are far away, living in a refugee camp. But hearing those sad things from an individual puts a personal face on this tragic environment and helps us to come to understand the daily struggles people face here. We came back home after an hour encouraged and grateful that God had answered our prayers. Please continue to pray for good conversations and relationships as we go out to practice Arabic, and also for Bob’s energy to continue to improve so that we can go out more often to practice.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

God's Refugee

Sometimes when reading a book one gets the extraordinary sense of God’s presence.  Such has been the case for Kristi and I as we have just finished God’s Refugee, The Story of a Lost Boy Pastor, by Rev. John Chol Daau and Lilly Sanders Ubbens.    

Many accounts have been given on the lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  It is estimated that 30,000 young boys fled from their homes due to the Second Civil War of Sudan with only 10,000 surviving the journey.  Stories usually include young boys having to walk incredibly long distances, being hunted by the military from the North, travelling for days with little water and food, being attacked by wild animals, crossing crocodile infested rivers, and being forced to live in refugee camps for years on end.

The boy John Chol Daau’s story is no different.  What perhaps sets his story apart from other accounts is how his life is clearly marked by God from infancy.  He is named after John the Baptist by one of his uncles, an unusual name to be given.  Moreover, as an infant, he would not stop crying, driving his mother and family to exasperation.  Finally his Uncle Johnson comes and gently holds a Bible over young John’s head.  John quiets and reaches for the Bible.  His Uncle Johnson then prophesies that one day John will preach God’s Word. 

John becomes known as the drummer boy in his village, carrying his Uncle Elijah’s Bible and following him everywhere.  The two would lead church services under a tree, where John would play his drum with rapturous joy.  Their efforts, however, were not appreciated by most villagers until John’s Uncle Paul is miraculously healed.  A second intervention of God during a difficult pregnancy solidifies the power of Jesus over the Jak (local spirits or gods) in the hearts and minds of villagers.  People begin to flock to the church and begin burning their shrines to the local deities, local deities who had been exacting huge sacrifices on the people for generations. 

When John’s village is attacked, he and others ran…and ran…and ran.  Much of his account focuses upon life in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, where life is harsh for everyone.  Yet, in these places of suffering and humiliation and pain, God makes Himself known to thousands upon thousands of Southern Sudanese refugees.  What some missiologists refer to as a “People Movement” becomes the norm in these camps.  Thousands begin flocking to different refugee camp churches to worship.  The Holy Spirit begins inspiring these new Christians to create new songs, songs which are written and composed daily.  Believers are given new names which represented new life and freedom.  John writes, “We began to see that we were not displaced unknowns, but God’s people.  We were refugees in God.  We sensed that what had been lost to us, our dignity, had been returned.  We received a new status – one as real persons.”   The refugees were given new life in Christ.  They were given a new community and a new family.  They realized that even if they didn’t have parents, God was their parent. 

After years of living in the camps, serving God but being separated from his family, John is miraculously given the opportunity to study at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.  His world opens up as he learns more about the Bible, about servant leadership, and about community development.  He returns to the camps where he teaches others and helps equip those serving as church leaders in the camps.  Finally, after seventeen years, he is able to return to his home village of Baping where he is reunited with his Uncle Johnson and learns more about the fate of other family members.  Of course there is more to tell, but we won’t give more details away! 

If you are interested in South Sudan or just simply want to be inspired by the manifestation of God’s miraculous power to redeem brokenness in our world, we encourage you to read this exceptional story.  You can find God’s Refugee, The Story of a Lost Boy Pastor on Amazon at this link, or go to a local bookstore and see if they have it in stock or ask if they can order it for you.  Happy reading! 

   

Friday, July 21, 2017

Seizing opportunities

We laughed as we greeted the staff of the small grocery store down the street, and they quizzed us on their names. They were excited to see Bob, especially, since he doesn’t get out to the store as often since being sick. Anwar, the butcher, came over from the adjoining shop when he heard our voices. They would rattle off a question in Arabic, then repeat it or simplify it for us until we could understand. They were excited that our Arabic is improving, and seem eager to help us practice and also impatient for us to be able to converse fluently.

Anwar grabbed Bob’s hand and led him over to his side of the store. Anwar is a large man with a commanding presence, who likes to laugh and joke. We had actualy intended to buy some meat and had just learned how to say a few types of meat used here (goat, sheep, chicken, beef). Anwar pointed to the different cuts of meat, explaining the names of everything. He also introduced Bob to the other staff, wanting to make sure that we knew everyone’s name. We were the only people in the store, fortunately, and all of us laughed as they asked us questions and tested our limited Arabic.

We finally settled on beef, and Bob successfully said the phrase we had learned “I want half a kilo of beef meat.” Anwar looked pleased that Bob was able to repeat the precise phrase he had taught him for ‘boneless meat of the cow’. Most shop keepers know enough English to use English with their prices, but we had just learned our numbers in Arabic, and were able to practice with the prices. Anwar offered to cut up the meat for us and put it in a bag. We took it over to the cashier (right next to the meat counter), and the cashier asked us “What do you have?” We realized he was asking just to test our Arabic, but we took the opportunity to say again “this is half a kilo of beef.”, and confirm the price “tul tul miya wa hamseen” (350 pounds).

We left the store, feeling grateful for the warm reception and the opportunity for some good Arabic practice. While Bob is still recovering and his activity is limited, we are trying to seize every oportunity to interact and practice what we learn in our lessons. This gives you a picture of one of those opportunities – please pray for good daily interactions, especially as we seek to build relationships using our new language.