Sunday, August 23, 2009

Having Faith in the 20%

I have to be honest.

I stopped writing on this blog because I wanted it to be a place where people felt inspired and moved to embark on their own journey. I wanted it to act as proof of my theory that true joy is found in the act of having faith. I stopped writing because I began to think of this as a "happy" place. I'm only just remembering, however, my original intent for this to be a "real" place.

So, in the spirit of uncovering and sharing my real, authentic self, I owe it to my readers to share the latest in this journey.

Africa was a time for reflection, realignment, and building strength to follow through with other changes in my life. I had already made the decision to quit my job cold-turkey (with no other opportunities lined up), but upon my return it was finally time to end my relationship of over 7 years. It's been 18-24 months in the making, a time spent mostly on attempts of bargaining and pleading and trying to reset my needs and expectations. The last 6 months, especially, I spent in paralyzing fear over losing the comfort, security, lifestyle, and love he provided in my life. But even that, I knew, wasn't enough. Our values were misaligned at the very core. Commitment, money, kids, God...these were some pretty big hurdles that we were never able to reach agreement on. Part of my calling to Africa was intended to separate myself from the day to day comfort and live more in the presence of God and listening to his promise and purpose for my life. And part of that was preparing my heart for the strength to let go of that comfort, security, lifestyle and love in order to allow more room for unfolding in this faith experiment.

So, in three weeks I have moved from a 3 bedroom house into a 120 square foot room (comfort), lost a second income to fall back on in case I cannot find or keep a job (security), completely disrupted my routine and definition of leisure (lifestyle), and have found myself bored, alone, and stripped of the validation I received in my relationship (love).

And I'm not going to lie to you: it pretty much sucks. I'm depressed. I'm battling doubts and remorse and fears and a general numbness that I've defaulted into just so I can get out of bed every morning. I'm faced with total ambiguity; I have no idea where to work or where to live or what to do with my time. I took two major leaps of faith (my job and my relationship) because those things were at 80% and I know God promised me 100%. But, in the interim, I find myself at 20%. It's so hard at this phase not to look back at that 80% and think "well, that's no so bad".

But I've come too far to give up now. Though its difficult to remember in this season, at the beginning of this journey I committed to trusting God beyond my own reason and logic. It's amazing how I can easily forget or discount how, in so many ways, God has blatantly proved the promise of provision.

Do I still not understand? (Mark 8:21)

When I read the gospels, the many times that Jesus' followers lost faith jumps out of the pages at me. I find myself thinking, "Jesus just fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread and they're still freaking out about not having enough to eat?!! Pfssshh...DUH. Open your fricken' eyes!"

In so many ways, he's blatantly shown me that he will answer and provide when the timing is right. Like feeding thousands with only seven loaves of bread, I have been blown away and moved in those moments. Yet, like the disciples just afterwards, I find myself stuck on this boat with only one loaf of bread and I'm so afraid I'll go hungry. I'm so tempted, because of that fear, to pick up the oars and paddle back to the shore he's delivered me from.

But he tells me, gently and patiently, "don't return to the village," (Mark 8:26). Despite the clouds of grief, depression and fear, these are the words I hear most clearly. "I didn't call you out of 80% to leave you here at 20%," he says, "trust me. My promise still lives and breathes as a part of this and I will not fail you."

What I've come to realize in this struggle is that it wasn't in the direct call to quit my job, the coming together of the trip to Africa, or the ongoing financial security through it all where I've experienced faith. Those were the provision...the result of enduring times of ambiguity and uncertainty but constantly believing wholeheartedly in the promise of God.

No, my friends, the true "faith" part of this experiment lives in this uncertainty and fear that results in waiting for the next provision. I can't decide where to live or where to work, let alone what to have for dinner tonight. But I can find stability and peace in this very present moment as I'm writing this. Perhaps that revelation is God reigning me into the core of what it means to have faith. Goals and dreams and visualizations are great and valuable to life, but faith is having confidence in every moment leading up to those realized dreams. Faith lives in the present and fuels the strength, courage, and determination to move forward.

Faith is not something that manifests because we hope it will work, rather hope is a by-product of the unfailing power of faith. My desire - my prayer - is to live each moment conscious of that so that hope, passion, joy, inspiration and love may be restored.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Faith Experiment Update

And so, I've landed back in the United States. Still processing Africa, but still faced with dozens of life decisions I don't really feel like I'm qualified to make. I've pondered and prayed about how this Faith Experiment can continue, even outside of the incredible, life-changing experiences in Africa. But, just as I'm trying to define it myself, it continues to unfold before me.

As I've eluded to, I landed with a crash amidst a fog of transition in many aspects of my life. I'll spare you the personal details for now, but let's just way I knew my landing back in the States was not going to be fun. A brief stop in Denver was blessed with 5 days of incredible friends and family walking with me and pumping me up to face the decisions awaiting me when I returned to Santa Barbara. It was exactly what I needed to hit the ground running when I returned, instead of spending weeks or even months ignoring or prolonging the inevitable decisions. Yet another reward of following the calling my heart felt for Denver as I was preparing to leave Burundi. I am gratefully blessed for that time.

I still have no job, and having been "on vacation" for a month I returned without any real grip on my financial situation or whether I could actually afford to pay my rent in July. This is one among many huge and life-changing decisions that I'm faced with, but I landed feeling strongly that I still wasn't ready to face it and I still hadn't felt called in any particular direction relating to my career. It's amazing how, in these times, we are so prone to worry. Here on this blog I have written so many accounts of how provisions have always come in times of uncertainty. My walk in this faith journey is about exactly that - FAITH. Yet, still I worried about the job and was just about ready to accept the first offer that came my way. Then, sifting through a 30-day pile of mail on my desk at home, I opened an envelope containing a check for $1,850. It was restitution being paid to me from a fraud/theft police report I had filed 12 years ago when someone bought a computer from me with a bad check. As "luck" would have it, $1,850 just about covers exactly 1 month of my expenses. Now, read those last few sentences again and tell me this little "experiment" of mine is not still alive and well? I am speechless, enamored, and in awe of the continued promise and provision.

As with any true, scientific experiment, I started out with a question: What would my life look like if I followed the callings placed on my heart? My hypothesis, based on how I have grown to understand a loving God, was that my deepest heart's desires would be fulfilled. My biggest challenge, which had (and still has) a very large potential of contaminating the experiment, is fear. The way I've faced that challenge is two-fold: (1) I haven't ignored the fear. I've let it live and breath in real time and as a part of this journey. (2) I've brought everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, into my quiet times, my prayers, and my journaling. Those "sinful" thoughts that "you should be ashamed of" and definitely shouldn't be brought to someone as infallible as God or as holy as Jesus? Yep...ESPECIALLY those...I've brought it all into the open and dumped it in front of him.

In that complete honesty, complete authenticity, and a new ability to bring anything before God without self-judgment or fear of his judgment I have been granted this beautiful vision. I'll share it with you here via an excerpt from last week's journaling:
I picture, comically, Jesus and I standing side-by-side in waiters drudging through this mess that is currently my life. But on his face, I picture a giant, loving grin. And it is that warm, loving smile that fuels me with motivation to keep shoveling. It's that smile that brings me hope. And we laugh together - digging through the bullshit because somewhere in there he knows there is a gem. And I believe it. So we dig together and smile together and laugh together at how ridiculous the mess has become. But, together, we will clean it up. And, together, we will find that gem.

He promised me. And I believe him.
Yeah, I'm not going to lie to you, things are a little messy right now. But my focus on his promise has kept me in high (and even jovial) spirits despite everything. It is looking like my hypothesis is shaping out to be proven.

How lucky are we to have promise? What's yours?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Box at a Time

I know someone who once became overwhelmed by the moving boxes stacked in her new basement. After 20 years, she had moved into a newer but smaller home and finding a place for all her things seemed an impossible task. In response, she avoided it. She didn’t like the boxes, and having an unpacked basement drove her crazy. But the breadth of the project rendered the task hopeless, so she chose to ignore it. For weeks, she carried on doing her best to forget about the boxes. She tended to and spent her time upstairs, making it comfortable and making it home. You’d never guess when walking through that front door that underneath it all, just one flight of stairs below, was a messy pile of overwhelm and hopelessness.

During a visit weeks after she had moved, her sister discovered and asked about the boxes in the basement. After listening to her longing to have her home complete but the challenges that made it impossible, her sister suggested, “Instead of trying to tackle it all at once, why don’t you just commit to unpacking one box every day?”

With that approach, suddenly 15 hours broke into small chunks of 30 minutes. Suddenly “it will never get done” turned into “I think I can have it done in a month”. With a shifted perspective, hope for what once seemed impossible was restored.

I would guess that it’s this holistic, overwhelming, start-to-finish perspective on issues such as social injustice, capitalistic greed, the environment, and poverty that manifests the apathy shared worldwide when it comes to advocating and acting for change. How could I possibly do anything that would impact the enormity of these problems? We surrender to having no hope of shifting our conditions, so we resort to ignoring them. We focus our energies on tidying up the surface, and do our very best to avoid and even forget about our messy piles of overwhelm and hopelessness underneath.

For the Batwa, education has been a near hopeless feat. The villages are far from any school and definitely not on any bus route. Families can’t afford to buy the required uniforms and, if they happen to get their hands on one, its usually shared by all their children so they take turns going to school; rotating days throughout the week. And, even if uniforms and books and supplies are provided, there is no place in the home to keep them dry during a rain. To date, only 4 Batwa have received their undergraduate degrees and currently there are only 2 students in University.

But, on my last night in Bujumbura, we celebrated with 40 Batwa students who had been hand-picked to attend high school and live together in Bujumbura. Here, they are not faced with the educational challenges experienced in the village. Books and uniforms are paid for, getting to and from school is no problem, they are fed three times each day, and their bodies, clothes and books remain dry in their middle class home during the rain. As we celebrated the end of their first year in the home and their preparation to return to their villages until the fall, the significance and importance of these students became clearly evident to me. These 40 students have restored hope for the oppression and poverty of the Batwa. I saw the future of these beautiful people being shaped before my very eyes.

Last year, a small group of people met and immediately built friendships with the Batwa. They felt compassion for them, and through the eyes of Jesus they saw a hope that perhaps the Batwa had given up long ago. They could have left that village overwhelmed by the extent of the poverty and their lack of resources to change it. They could have learned about the 500 students that local advocates were trying to raise support for and seen financial impossibility. They could have so easily just walked away in hopelessness, committing only to lifting them up in their prayers and having faith that God would somehow release the Batwa .

But, instead, they committed to supporting and sending 40 students to school. Overwhelm turned into action. One box was unpacked.

I am in awe that just a small handful would have such a profound impact. Today, they take off their ties and nice slacks and head back into their villages. They go back to sleeping on the dirt floor of their small huts with leaky roofs. They return to their previous diet of three meals week (instead of per day). But, they return empowered. They return to share what they’ve learned, to encourage and empower others, and to bring the hope of the student house to their families and communities. They return to share the restored hope of the impossible.

Soon after the student project developed, the same group began to dream and build the project at Matara. During the first week of June, thirty Batwa families moved to Matara and began planning their community and preparing to cultivate a land where there is finally hope for an abundance of crops.. They are clearing the land and building strong and permanent homes with roofs that will keep them dry. For the first time in history, they have land that is theirs, and are free from fear that the government will move the village.

One more box. Just these 30 families will experience the improvement now, but they will take what they learn in building their community and share it with other villages. They will pay it forward, empowering others to learn and create change. Having witnessed this beginning, I see the grand display of dominos that are just beginning to tumble and will turn into something beautiful.

With a shifted perspective, hope for what once seemed impossible is being restored…one box at a time.


Some of the students lined up in the driveway of their home.




Showing off gifts received from their prayer partners in Texas.


A special moment between a Batwa student and his prayer partner. There's a great story about this photo, ask me about it.


Clearing land in Matara.

Friday, July 3, 2009

One Day Left

For almost two weeks these pages have laid dormant. So much swirling around in my head, and so much making into my personal journal entries...what to share with the public world? What could I say that could compete with the welcoming song of Bubanza, the dance of Mukike, and the fire at Matara? I haven't picked up my camera since the COF group flew home to Texas - what could I possibly have to share?

And now I come to the sobering realization that (at the mercy of Kenya Airways), I will be ascending above Bujumbura on my own journey home in less than 36 hours. The experience is nearing an end.

I want so badly to report back with some sort of closure to my adventure. I want to be able to tell you this is why God called me to Africa and this is what I'm going to be doing with it when I get home. This was my epiphany - now watch as I roll off into the sunset of absolute understanding and knowledge of my life's direction and live happily ever after...the end.

But the "ah-ha" moments I've had have not been this profound. They've been moments of humility, and moments of simple joy. I can't share with you a grand epiphany, but I can share the gifts and clarity I've received in an effort to stay constant in faith.

1. God brought me to Africa to take a Trip to Texas
As a California resident, my political views tend to align left along with most in my environment. I mention this, not to engage in political debate, but to as a frame of reference for how you might guess I felt when I heard I was going to be photographing a group from Texas during a celebration of the Batwa of Burundi. Based on nothing more than my assumptions of a theology and political ideology I associated with Texas, I made a judgment.

But, by the loving grace of God, this group received me as part of their team. In the abundance and warmness of their presence and my openness to welcome and receive them, friendships sprouted. It wasn't until after they left that I realized we never discussed our personal theologies or political views. Whether or not their spiritual journey looked the same as mine or whether they would accept or reject my current philosophy never became an issue. Even now I'm not sure why it would even matter...seems silly even to bring it up!

So, I experienced a new kind of friendship, not only with the Batwa, but with the Texans as well. We were friends because we practiced love, respect, and acceptance together. We were friends beause we shared an adventure and new experience. We were friends because our specific theologogy or ideology wasn't part of the conscious decision to accept eachother exactly as we came. We didn't become friends because we talked about Jesus, we became friends in the spirit of Jesus.

2. My Life is Small
During a trip through the country, our group stopped for one night in Gitega and one night in Ngozi. At both locations, we stayed at the nicest hotels in town. But, the rooms were 1/2 star by American standards at best. There was no running water and, when finally fixed, hot water was a pipedream. The floors were dirty and the linens were worn. There were bugs on the floor and the towels were dirty. Many, including me, murmured among ourselves a longing for home.

But, I began to wonder, a longing for what? For crisp linens and modern drapes? For remodeled bathrooms and fancy soaps? Okay, maybe running water and no bugs seems like it isn't too much to ask...but for most of Burundi it is. Both hotels were situated in a compound bordered by tall walls and barbed wire to deter theft and violence. And, outside those tall walls, were small homes with conditions clearly much worse than the hotel. I watched from my second floor room as a neighbor child cooked dinner in his backyard. No, it wasn't a barbeque, it was their kitchen. From the open door to the house, I saw only dirt floors. This little boy, I thought to myself, will likely never know a hot shower.

In Bubanza and Mukike, roofs leak in the rain. It's possible gifts of blankets or pillows might be sold for food. Their priorities are (1) food and (2) shelter. These aren't even on my priority list, they are involuntary basics - like a breath or a heartbeat - of my blessed American culture.

Later, my friend Teri said something beautiful to compare the time the Batwa spent at the fancy hotel in Bujumbura with our stays in Gitega and Ngozi, "The Batwa got to learn how to live with running water and we got to learn how to live without it."

3. Love and Grace Above all Else
While my personal religion and ideology continues to undergo some dissection and routine maintenance, the concepts of love, grace and acceptance continue to stand strong. In coming to understand Jesus as Love - and I mean a love that is abundant and omnipresent for all...for all - I'm learning that there really is no discrimination. Not for the poor, and not for the rich. Not for the Evangelical, and not for the aetheist. So, out of this, I desire to be a place of freedom for others; where they are safe to believe whatever they will because I understand it is not my duty to "fix" them or change their mind. It doesn't mean not talking about or sharing in my journey, it just means being careful to frame it as an absolute. It doesn't mean I won't disagree (I am human afterall), it just means not allowing one aspect of a person's belief system frame a judgement in my mind about their character.

I am free to sway like coral in the swell of his abundant presence and grace, soaking in a love that rises above knowledge or discovery of any absolute truth.

And I am free to come home to you with more questions and fewer answers than I left with. Of course, life must go on. I have many decisions to make as I enter in a new chapter and season of my life. But, by that grace, I am less concerned with making "good" decisions or "bad" decisions. I am less concerned with having complete confidence and control over the grand master plan that is my life.

My Aunt Linda paints a picture of Jesus' love like a meandering river on which we are all floating. We may watch as certain things go by - moments of joy, sucess, decision, worry, bad choices - but these are all things just floating with us. None of them can disrupt the constant flow of that river...of Jesus' love.

So, as I come home to you, I am conscious of my inntertube.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Holy Week

Wow.

That's the best way I can think of to begin this post. As I reflect back on the week behind me, I realize that no words or even images can do justice in describing the shift that has occurred in so many people over the course of just a few days. I, for one, will never be the same. The group from Texas is fired up, eager to get back to Community of Faith Church in Houston and continue the conversation of how to grow and build on their newfound friendships. The Batwa, as felt in the spirit of their song and the joy of their dance, have experienced a hope once long lost. Friendships have been forged. Real friendships. Friendships that have sprouted a restored dignity and respect for the Batwa.

"This is a holy week for the Batwa," Etienne shared with us as we left Mukike yesterday afternoon. I really hope they believe us when we share that the experience is reciprocal. It's been a holy week for all of us.

Bubanza

On Wednesday, the group traveled to the Batwa village at Bubanza. As we pulled up, on the left was a large greeting celebration - drums, singing, and dancing. To the right were smiling Batwa children, they ran to keep up with the Land Cruiser and were eager to welcome and embrace their Muzungu friends. As I stepped out of the vehicle, I literally lost my breath. Later, one of my new friends from Texas shared that she saw the expression on my face at that moment, an expression that said "I'm not sure I can take this!" She was right. I was so moved by the greeting I almost sobbed then and there.

As the trucks pulled up, the children ran to greet us.

They crowded together to be included in the greeting and the photos. Here they posed with Glori from Community of Faith Church.

The air was filled with celebration and song. The Batwa love to dance, and to me it was an expression of their joy. You can literally feel God's great pleasure and joy in their song and the stomping of their feet.


I haven't yet asked where they get their clothes. I assume hand-me-downs...some of them are really great!

I shot this video with my camera, trying to capture the song and excitement. (The pauses in between are photos I took while I was filming.)



As the celebration simmered down, there were a few brief words exchanged from both sides. The team from Texas recapped their friendship - how it had started a year ago at that very village after a few of the church leaders were invited by Etienne (Mutwa member of parliament) to see the conditions his people were living in. A year ago, the Batwa had questioned whether God had forgotten them. On this day, we celebrated that God never forgets. As both sides reflected on the kept promise of remembrance and of bringing others to see, friendships deepened.


After the announcements, the Batwa began to line up towards the group, each carrying a small handmade pot. Here, a people who have nothing...and I mean nothing...had spent days molding and forming and firing small pots to gift as a token of their new friendships. One by one they handed a pot to each person, including the two photographers.


After receiving this gift, I completely lost it. When everyone had received their pots, the group rejoiced in dance together. I captured only a few images of this before having to just stop altogether.


And then I just began to sob...along with many others. As we closed in prayer I fought back heaving sobs that came from deep within. On the drive home I was silent, processing the events and resulting emotions from the day. A lyric from one of my favorite songs stuck to me like honey, "...in a world of pain and suffering, how can I be so blessed?" It's true, there are many ways in which we are so rich - a wealth that certainly no Batwa will experience in their lifetime. But there are so many ways in which we are so poor - faced with poverty, sickness and loss the very last thing any of us would do is sing and dance. I have seen it, heard it, felt it...yet I still cannot fathom. I feel as though I have looked God right in the face, yet still can't completely grasp his presence. But, I tell you, his presence poured out over Bubanza like a river.

Mukike and Matera

On Friday, our village emersion experience became completely real. We packed our bags and split into groups that would spend a night in one of the villages. Our group stayed in Matera, which is the new land that the church has purchased on loan for the Batwa so they can build and cultivate without fear of being moved by the government (which happens frequently).

Before heading to Matera, we visited a village at Mukike (a word that's fun to say, by the way, and we exclaimed it out the windows as we drove to and from). We drove up a windy four-wheel drive road, through beautiful country and past green crops. The village sat at the top of the hill, surrounded by this beauty that the Batwa cannot touch. You could see the crops they did have were meager, especially when compared to those around them. Later it was explained to us that the land required fertilizer to grow...a luxury not afforded by the Batwa.

Again, they danced around us. They took our hands and guided us to their most prized hut - a modest 3-rooms built from mud and clay with a roof made of thin branches that leaks when it rains.

This particular hut was the best in the village. The door to the left was the kitchen (consisting of a small fire pit), and to the right a bedroom - which actually had a bed lifted off of the floor, a rarity for the Batwa.

The next day, we would journey back to Mukike to place tarps over their roofs. Far from perfect, but when the next rain comes they are more likely to find a dry place to sleep.

New view of the village after just an hour of work in attempt to waterproof their homes

After our first visit to Mukike, we stopped at a guesthouse for a bite to eat, then headed down the road to Matera. We arrived late at night, probably around 10:30 or 11pm, and were greeted by Batwa who guided us up a steep incline into their new village.

At the top was more celebration...more singing...more dancing. This will never get old! They showed us to our accommodations, for which we were all so moved and eternally grateful. Even though they were just moving into the land themselves, they constructed special huts just for our visit. With the help of some external funding, they were able to place straw on the ground for padding and brought up mattresses and blankets for our comfort. Again, these are not luxuries afforded by the Batwa, but they wanted to do this for us. They even constructed a small bathroom for those in the group not exactly used to what can be described closest as camping.

Two identical huts were constructed for our visit, one for the women and one for the men. Pictured here are Myra and Leah (her daughter), who are here with their family. I have thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them. Bob (the dad) and I were both chastised by the group for our geeky zip-off camping pants and our headlamps, but later looked pretty smart!

And then we sang and danced near the fire until late in the evening. We learned that worship music in Kirundi was a lot better than our songs in English! They had songs you could groove to, and all we could throw back was "Jesus loves me", which in that environment sounds pretty lame (sorry Sunday school). Their version of "God is so Good" is even better than ours, even though it's the same tune!

Singing and dancing with the children near the fire

Later they brought out fresh goat, which was butchered and cooked over the fire for this very occasion. We gladly accepted (though I'll admit the goat was a little tough), and they were so thrilled that we warmly accepted their gifts.

Goat kebabs were served over a bed of plantains

You have to understand, the Batwa are a seriously oppressed people in this country. To the Hutu and Tutsi people surrounding them, they are considered "weird", "ungrateful", and "hopeless". They are hardly considered human beings in this land, often overlooked for basic civil liberties afforded to the Hutus and Tutsis dominating the region. Most would not accept an invitation into a Batwa village, and they certainly wouldn't accept their food. Years of this kind of oppression have left the Batwa almost believing in the concept that they somehow are not worthy of love or friendship. But here, a bunch of muzungus gladly danced around their fire, shared their food, and slept in their huts. We toured their land, held their babies, and hugged each other out of mutual respect. This, later explained by Etienne and Liberate (both Batwa members of parliament), is what made the occasion a holy one. For our acceptance of their friendship they are eternally grateful. And for their acceptance of us, in our fancy clothes and pampered lifestyles, has been even more humbling for us. They received us with more hospitality than I have ever experienced before.

After we ate, the party began to die down. People retired into the huts and the song turned into a low murmur of voices around the fire. I, on the other hand, was not ready for bed.


More song and dance, gathered around the fire. Beautiful!


For me, something magical happens around a fire. I sat, a lone muzungu, staring into its flames as conversation carried on around me. Although I couldn't understand what was being said, I felt as though I was part of the conversation. Every once and a while the group would burst out in laughter in response to something that was said, and there was a Mutwa constantly tending the fire - poking it with a stick every now and again just to see the flames go higher. I realized that exactly four weeks ago, I was doing much the same thing with my friends in Colorado. We sat as a large group around a campfire, exchanging stories and memories and recapping the events of the day. We laughed, sang and danced around that fire - much like what we had just experienced with the Batwa. In that moment I felt safe, welcomed, loved, and right at home. I could have been back in Colorado and I wouldn't have known the difference.

As I sat entranced by the fire, a friend who had joined us earlier in the week at the hotel, Epitas, came over and sat next to me. He unwrapped the sheet he had draped over his shoulders for warmth and cuddled up next to me to share it. We laughed together, along with a couple other Batwa, pointing at objects and exchanging the words in our language. Fire, wood, finger, eyes, ears (none of the Kurundi words I remember, unfortunately). They giggled at the English words...so very different from theirs, and laughed even harder as I tried to pronounce their words. That was a beautiful time...probably my favorite from the whole trip so far. I will always treasure that memory around the fire.


My signature star trails shot...taken with a large group of curious Batwa looking over my shoulder!


I wish these images, words, and video could capture the emotion. I wish you could feel the hope that permeated the air, and the love extended outward by the new friendships. I wish I could articulate the impact and significance of this week. The experience filled me with a sort of perfect storm of joy, sadness, and sweeping compassion I have never felt before.

I am eternally grateful for this experience, for these relationships, and for the addictive persistence and perseverance of the Batwa. They have shown us grace, compassion, love, and acceptance unlike any other.

In my memory, the Batwa will shine like a sparkle in the eyes of Jesus.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Friendship Project

I didn't realize it this morning, but I had my doubts. 30 Texans arriving in Bujumbura, Burundi to build friendships and celebrate with 42 Batwa? I had my expectations...it would be a polite exchange of handshakes, awkward silence, forced smiles, and a culture shock made irreparable by a very wide language gap. In the end, it will be the Texas group living it up on the Beaches of Tanganyika and the Twa people trying to figure out what to do with themselves in a fancy hotel. Reflecting on the day's events, I have to confess that I assumed I already had it all figured out. This, to me, is what a missions trip looks like.

But at 1:00pm this afternoon, the 42 Twa people filed onto the patio adjacent to the beach, collecting their programs and nametags and looking sharp in their new business casual gettups with unmatching ties. The women arrived shortly thereafter, dressed in beautiful purple wraps as they walked humbly and timidly towards the crowd. Their faces were marked with anticipation and wonder...looking back I wonder if they had the same assumption I did.

But, one by one, the Texans approached the group with warmth, excitement, and authentic caring and compassion that is unlike anything I've experienced in any church. And, as they were approached, the Batwa's expressionless (and almost stern-looking) faces lit up with joy and they jumped and crowded each other to shake the hand of their new friend.

Friends? Batwa and Texans? Is that even possible? I am telling you, I witnessed it first hand, and it is indeed. Genuine caring, genuine respect and appreciation...genuine love.

And now I understand the context and the purpose for meeting in the spirit of Jesus. This was not a humanitarian project set out to provide aid in the form of money, supplies, food, or medical care. It is a friendship project, intended to empower and set free a tribe opressed in their own country by forging relationships that the Batwa never thought possible. This is so clearly evident...when an American approaches their eyes light up with an exclamation and almost puzzled wonder, as if to say "I matter?" And when they sense the genuinity...the authenticity...their faces soften and they reach to embrace their new friend with an empowered confidence that shouts "I matter!" That, my friends, is the love of Jesus. It is a love that reaches beyond the pocketbook or personal ideas or suggestions on the best way to live a "better" life. It is a love marked by compassion, grace, and unconditional acceptance. I've experienced that love through understanding Jesus, and today I witnessed the Kingdom of God at work right here on Earth.

And I am touched. Something is moving inside of me that I can't yet describe or explain, but I can tell you that I have immediately fallen in love with the Batwa. Not only that, I am overwhelmed by the grace and kindness of the group from Texas (Community of Faith Church). I've never experienced such authenticity (that's my new favorite word) in a church environment.

Last night, I had a long conversation with Etienne Ndayishimiye, who is a Batwa member of Parliament in Burundi. Etienne speaks very broken English (which is a struggle for someone who can't understand good English with an accent) but we managed to communicate as he unfolded his story and the connections made between Community of Faith and the Batwa over the past year. You can read of his experience coming to the U.S. in February on the Community For blog. I highly recommend it...it is an excellent read and provides a lot more detail about the friendships I witnessed today:

Nine Days I will Never Forget

There will be more to come, for sure, but I have much more to process about the day. Meanwhile, enjoy some photos (oh yeah, taking photos was totally kick ass as well! It's a freakin' photographer's dream!)









Monday, June 15, 2009

A Country of My Own

Today’s Reading:
“Do not let anyone convince you that his path is the only right way. And be careful not the extol your path as superior to another’s way.”
- Jesus Calling (Sarah Young)

…and they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one…
- Hebrews 11: 13-16

What resonates with me as I write this morning is that I’m struggling to reconcile experiences in an environment of faith that I have been taught to expect of the secular world.

“Don’t let anyone convince you that his path is the only right way.” When I read this, I envision being challenged by a debate over atheism, or by having a political discussion with a strong conservative. What I don’t expect is to question that in an environment of believers that actually share a faith similar to mine.

I love the message of Amahoro, and I thoroughly enjoyed Robert’s sermon yesterday…but I’m still caught up in the evangelism – that believing in Jesus as the son of God and becoming a Christian is the only context under which we can experience change, transformation, reformation, compassion, justice, and love. I don’t want to imply that this was instilled as part of the Amahoro gathering or a key message in Robert’s sermon…there’s been no such discussion or outward implication, and Amahoro especially had a warm and welcoming “come as you are” spirit. But internally, and probably based on my upbringing, I sense a clear distinction between right and wrong, good and bad that I’m realizing has always bothered me in Christian circles.

I am passionate about love, compassion, and justice for humanity. Though I may connect to this through the message of Jesus, I find it presumptuous to expect the experience to resonate with others in the same way. That, however, doesn’t absolve me from the responsibility to be truthful and authentic about my own experience. If Jesus is where I have found it, then he has to be a part of that conversation. At my core, I believe “sharing the good news” is about wanting to share your experience of transformation because its exciting, adventurous and full of hope…because you will naturally just want to (just as you’d want to describe any life changing experience, such as kids, a fantastic vacation, a trek through the wilderness, etc.) The Christian faith, in my opinion, has distorted this into sharing with the intention of converting others to the faith. Like we’re all walking around with scorecards and the one with the most points in the end “wins”. What really disturbs me about this widely accepted Christian concept is the amount of blood that has been shed throughout history in the name of convincing other cultures that theirs is the “right” way.

So, the trick to my conversations about my own experience is how to bring up the “J” word without feeling like I’m imposing my beliefs onto others. Probably more so is how to do without them making the assumption that converting them is my intention. I’m frustrated with mainstream Christianity for robbing me of an ability to feel comfortable in my honesty.

And I do feel like a stranger and alien on the Earth. I followed a calling I believe was put on my heart by God, but here I feel even more like a stranger. It’s funny, now that I think about it, that I expected to find comfort and belonging in an environment of believers based solely on the fact that I was drawn here by faith (I have faith, they have faith, I must belong!) No, what I am coming to understand is that I was not called here for the purpose of achieving a sense of belonging or acceptance in a social group. Social acceptance has to come as a by-product of finding the “better country” I seek. In faith and in confidence I persevere to establish a truth that is mine alone. I find that truth in exploring what’s true for others, having conversations about it, and turning that inward in silence and reflection and in communion with my experiences and faith. All that’s really required is that the journey be ongoing…an evolution of faith that grows and shifts and morphs with the context of time and age.

In this personal journey, I will connect with others who share similar beliefs or, at least, similar journeys. (My deepest connections are most commonly with people who aren’t Christians...this has been true my whole life.) I have struggled with a sense belonging these last few days because I hoped building new relationships would catapult me into a deepened faith and clearer spiritual journey. But I am learning that it will be the strength and confidence in my own faith journey that will build those relationships…and there is no catapult.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Burundi, the First Two Days

After 14 hours of transit from Johannesburg, the "team" arrived in Bujumbura, Burundi around 3:30am early Saturday morning. Traveling along with Claude, Kelley, and the other Burundians who attended the Amahoro conference were Thomas and Robert from the Dominican Republic and Sydneyanne and David from Los Angeles. Sydneyanne and David are hosting the large group from a church in Texas who are coming in on Monday to celebrate their partnership with the Batwa people. Robert and Thomas have joined the celebration through their friendship with all of the above and also can relate based on similar work they are doing with indiginous tribes in the DR.

After a good sleep-in on Saturday, Claude and Kelley took us all to a restaurant called Bora Bora, right on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. After a busy week in the cold, it was a refreshing retreat! Here's a few photos:

View as you walk in the front door of Bora Bora.

Opposite View (looking back at the front door).

Click here to view more photos of day one in Burundi

This morning we went to church in Bujumbura (the pastor is a friend of Claude's). We arrived at 9:30am, after they'd already been singing for an hour. I don't think the sermon began until about 10:30, and it ended just after noon. It was a long service, and a bit much for us "muzungus" (westerners), but was a great experience. We were welcomed by the pastor on the pulpit, and each were provided a translator for the service. Now, I go to church back home but not avidly by any means. Apparently they sang a lot of common church songs (but in Kirundi), and my translator seemed slightly appalled that I didn't know most of them (I got 'How Great Thou Art' once they got to the chorus).

I was surprised by how familiar the church service was. Here I am in Africa, in the 3rd poorest country of the world, and the service I witnessed today could have been anywhere back home. The music sounded the same, the agenda was the same (shake hands with your neighbor, visitors please fill out our guest card in your program and drop it in the offering basket, etc.). To be completely honest (and that's what I'm trying to be), I was kind of disappointed and, in some ways, it made me sad. I can't help but wonder if there's a sacred culture that's been lost in such a westernized service. That, of course, is based on my limited to zero knowledge of Burundian culture, so maybe I'm completely off base. I think I'm still feeling sensitive to "Christianizing" natives being such a strong part of colonialism across the globe, and I felt like I was witnessing its residual affects. I think this also hits a sore spot for me because, personally, the traditional church service has never really done anything for me. I find the mainstream church approach fits too neatly in a routine, and lacks a personal and relational aspect that holds more meaning for me.

However, I don't want to disregard the true and great intentions of the church. I also don't want to disregard the fact that this type of worship really works for other people...in fact, most Christians. During lunch today with Pastor Mark and his wife, he explained to us how they planted their church right in the middle of a needy community and are known to welcome people of all kinds into their church (open door being an understatement, as you'll see from the photos). I love the community aspect, and that they really have a heart for serving the poor. From a purely personal perspective, I could just do without the hubbub.

What I loved about this morning was the sermon. Robert (from the Dominican Republic) was the guest pastor, his sermon translated into Kirundi. I loved his message, and related to it deeply. He spoke about Jesus in the light of a call to serve the poor and find justice for the oppressed. He charged the congregation to engage in their faith outside the walls (or lack thereof) of the church, and beyond the singing and praising and exclamation of "hallelujah!" I relate to this because I've been convicted in the same way.

One thing that I can say was different was the energy in the audience...there was no holding back here!

The Church

The Congregation



Worship leader (left), Pastor Mark (right)



Us out-of-towners invited on stage (yes, I was tacky and photographing as they were introducing me as a professional photographer)

Authenticity

Over the course of the past few days, I have struggled with an internal war of discovering my authenticity. Landing in South Africa and being hurled into a large event with 200 strangers and, further, encouraged to engage in dialogue was an intimidating shock to my system. I think the only positive in coming into that environment is that it was exactly what I anticipated and was mentally trying to prepare for. How I struggled internally throughout the week (and even now) is no surprise to me, but still I have to admit that a small part of me - the part that feels inferior and lacks a sense of belonging - really wants to come home. It's that part of me that would rather recluse and lock myself in the house on a Saturday afternoon, curled up under a blanket in front of the TV, that longs to escape from interacting with a group of people who have yet to know me deeply. I long to escape because, at some level, I do not want them to know me deeply. In that concept is a very real fear of rejection...and I have coped with this all my life by avoiding the deep. I find after it's breached the outer boundaries of small talk, I find some excuse to duck out.

But, the truth is, I long for a deeper connection. I long to reach a comfort far beyond small talk where I can be real. And, when I consider this longing, I realize I also long to know what it is to be real. I hate social circles and I hate small talk...mostly because it always begins with the pretense of having to be someone you are not. Consider the common question, "So, what do you do?" How many times have you asked this and actually cared about a person's occupation? Think about it...and be honest. As for myself, I rarely do. I'm just reaching for any conduit into connecting with that person I can get my hands on. Empty, icebreaker questions and my subsequent disinterest in the answer rarely actually gets me there.

What kind of dialogue can we build with strangers that feels less like polite schmoozing and more like a genuine desire to connect and relate with one another?

How about the kind of conversation that isn't concerned as to whether that connection is successfully made, or whether we are accepted as individuals as a result? How about the kind of conversation where we apply only the necessary social or cultural filters, instead of the assumed, ancillary filters based on what little we know of the individual?

By framing my dialogue by what I think you want to hear, I rob you of my authentic self. And, the more conversations I have like this, the more I rob me of my authentic self.

My desire in this season is to seek freedom from self (self-esteem, self-confidence, self-loathing) in order to rebuild that authenticity. I see this as a clear obstacle in connecting deeper to God's calling and purpose in my life.

Apartheid Museum

On Wednesday of the Amahoro conference, two groups headed out onto field trips in Johannesburg. One group went to the Soweto township, and the rest of us visited the Apartheid Museum.

Now, those of you who know me well will know that I don't really do museums. I can be in and out of most places in under 20 minutes. The Apartheid Museum, however, was a far different experience. By this time I had already been submerged in South African history just by the speakers and conversations we had had during the conference. I found myself in the museum hungry for more knowledge and understanding...really seeking justification for how anyone could think it was a good idea. I walked carefully through the museum, reading almost every plaque, for about 2 1/2 hours. In fact, I didn't even get to finish the entire journey because the museum closed at 5pm (and there was no warning or grace period...the lights just shut off around 4:58pm and the employees walked through the halls to flush us all out of the building).

It was fascinating, though my lack of retaining historical facts and events will prevent me from describing it to you in any detail here. I can tell you that, while I walked away with a greater understanding of the country's volatile history, my question of why still remains open. My guess is that is a truth for the entire country.



"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
- Nelson Mandela

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reconciliation

The workshop panel discussion on Tuesday opened with a presentation on a brief history of Apartheid (which I was extremely grateful for) and the attempts of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to garner accountability for the politics and actions of South African Apartheid in the 50's, 60's, and beyond. After this brief but informative introduction, a panel of white and black South Africans sat on stage to begin a dialogue, but all eyes were fixated on one man (who I hadn't heard of until that day), Adriaan Vlok. Mr. Vlok had been the minister of police in South Africa's apartheid regime during the 1980's and was responsible for the violent and deadly crackdowns against the ANC (African National Congress), South African blacks and coloreds, who opposed the regime. In 2006, Vlok became convicted in his faith to seek forgiveness and reconciliation for the pain he caused. He spoke of his widely politicized gesture of washing the feet of the long imprisoned Rev. Frank Chikane, along with nine mothers who had lost loved ones as a result of the violence. His presence cultivated a clear energy of hesitation, nervousness, and perhaps even disgust. Even as he spoke of his experience, a low murmur of uncomfortable South African giggles could be heard across the crowd.

And just when I thought Vlok's confession of his wrongdoings might provide reconciliation for the oppressed blacks and coloreds of his regime, something amazing and unexpected happened. One of the white, South African panel members confronted Mr. Vlok with his story of fighting in the South African Army (something I found out later was a minimum 2-year requirement for most of the white South African 40-somethings in the audience...whether they agreed with the cause or not). He had served, he said, for two years with orders to fight and eliminate resistance. His time in the army had caused him over 15 years of PTSD, to the point where his counselor had suggested he find a person or entity to blame it all on. That person, he admitted, was Adriaan Vlok. "To this day," he went on to explain, looking directly into Mr. Vlok's eyes, "when I curse in my home, I use your name." That is how much he despised the man in front of him. But, he went on to suggest, "and I think it's time I apologized to you for that."

At this moment, I can't imagine there was a dry-eye in the house. Even I, who came into the meeting having never heard of Adriaan Vlok, was fogging up my camera lens with the humidity from my tears. And, in that moment, Adriaan Vlok asked this man if he could wash his feet to commemorate his request for forgiveness. And the war soldier, wounded by years of guilt and hatred, replied, "only if you'll let me wash yours as well".

And so, before an audience of 100 or more, the former minister of the South African Police and an army veteran who struggled for years with guilt and shame for having to uphold the apartheid regime removed their shoes and took turns washing each other’s feet.




I believe I witnessed a pivotal moment in this country’s history. Afterwards, more army veterans confronted Vlok in reconciliation, hugging and crying at the pouring out of a moment that is certain to initiate a healing process across all men who share in that shame.



That night, I had several conversations with South African men who shared in the experience, and opened up to me in a beautiful vulnerability to describe their experiences and years of pain and torment they had suffered as a result of their mandatory service in the South African Army. No amount of literature I could have read to educate myself on the affects of apartheid would ever compare to the stories I heard face-to-face with these men (nor could a full written account of them here). They are heartbreaking stories, but today they are stories of reconciliation….of healing…of moving on. I’m so grateful for these new friends who told their story, and I hope they continue to tell it. This history must not be repeated...anywhere.

I am understanding more and more that this is exactly what Amahoro is all about...

Amahoro

Welcome to my mid-stream journey in this adventure. First, let me just briefly describe my experience up to this point for those who I haven't updated:

May 1, 2009 was my last day of my job as a Director of Website Product Management and User Experience Design. Long story short, I struggled greatly for months with a juxtaposition of core values between working for an American corporation and a newly kindled passion within me to serve in the capacity of social justice (whatever that means...I'm still figuring this out). After several months of considering different definitions of success (comparing the status quo of the American cultural perspective defined by consumerism and economic status against the personal and spiritual satisfaction of cultivating passion, service, and growth), I was blessed with an overwhelming "epiphany" experience that it was time to move on...regardless of the fact that I had no follow-up plan. In plain English, I quit my job in the midst of a volatile economy and have no idea what I am going to do next. But this epiphany, to me, was a deeply spiritual experience, followed by a whole slew of in-your-face affirmations that made the decision so easy to make. There has been no doubt in my mind that this was a decision of complete faith, following completely in a deep and spiritual calling.

These few brief sentences, which hardly bring the last few months of my journey justice, lead me to this moment. I am writing today from a camp in the vicinity of Magaliesburg, South Africa. I have joined the conversation during a weeklong conference themed "Amahoro", which means "peace" in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda. I can't even describe what landed me in South Africa...it has been a sudden, God-driven experience that has left me completely exhausted and in the midst of some serious culture shock. I can sum this up in one embarrassing sentence: I came to South Africa without any real knowledge of the political, social, or economic history or present state of the country. My knowledge of South Africa consisted, quite simply, of the awareness of racial segregation and the release of a political prisoner named Nelson Mandela. That was the complete extent of it. On the drive from Johannesburg to the camp here in Magaliesburg, my new South African friend Marius had to define "Apartheid" to me. Perhaps this might provide an initial concept of how I have struggled with feeling out of place in this environment. These last few days have very much reminded me of the time I played Trivial Pursuit with a core group of UCSB History Professors and Academics...something I swore I would never do again. From an internal, socialpolitical perspective, this experience has been like a nightmare game of Trivial Pursuit with a bunch of history buffs that will just not end.

So, I find myself in the midst of theological academics, and those who are not University or Seminary professors are working directly for faith-based organizations - as large as World Vision (30,000 employees worldwide) and as small as individual groups working with the poor and oppressed across the continent. Sparking up conversation with other attendees at this conference has given the common icebreaker, "so what do you do?" a whole new meaning. Listening to the answers here leaves me praying and hopeful that they won't return the question. And, when they do, I have no other option but to be completely honest, "I am in between jobs and came to Africa on a calling (or gut instinct) that I had something to learn from this experience. I have absolutely no knowledge about the historical context of Africa, but am here to learn and grow and to hopefully build relationships as part of an unfolding journey that's spiritually led."

But let's get back to Amahoro..."peace". The vision and the conference were really the result of just a small, core group who believe there was hope for Africa. Of those people are my friends, Claude Nikondeha and Kelley Johnson (both Burundi-Americans...you can guess which are the dominant of each culture). I came here knowing very little about the conference and its vision, but after only two days I understand it to be the unification of African countries under a common hope that the roots of African culture and the westernization of the continent can be reconciled under God to inspire and cultivate change in a continent that has been ridden with corruption, violence, poverty, and disease. Africa finds itself in a season defined as "Post-Colonial". To just briefly describe my understanding of colonialism, it is the context in which the western world came into Africa to colonize the tribes under the assumption that the Western way was the "right" way (sound familiar?). In this context, then, post-colonialism can be described as the uprise and rejection of the fundamentals brought to Africa by the Western world. In just 24-hours, I experienced first-hand an Africa that longs to rekindle their sacred culture, and to find pride and confidence in the identity of that culture...a culture that was, long ago, stripped by a western world on a quest for dominance and power. Most painfully, such quests were often (if not always) made in the name of God.

As someone who comes from the background of Christian faith, I knew I specifically didn’t want my journey to Africa to necessarily be under Christian precepts because of my awareness of what Western culture has done across the globe in the name of evangelism (i.e. those hunter-gatherers are going to go to hell unless we “save” them). Even in this environment among Christians, and even though my belief system can be best described as “Christian”, I honestly find myself hesitant to engage in conversations of religious context because of my own rejection of many concepts and “truths” that have been passed down from generation to generation by religious leaders. But in this community at Amahoro, as I slowly begin to open up in being true to (and still discovering) my own authenticity, I have found a space of freedom to ask aloud the questions I cannot ask in most Christian circles, and a common desire to challenge our faith to be a conduit into fostering love, acceptance, reformation and peace.

I have sporadically jotted down my experiences so far at Amahoro (since I am finally drawing this first post to a close after processing and writing for several days). For the sake of readability, I will break up my Amahoro experiences into different posts. But first, to lighten things up a bit…I’ll open my visual communication with my very first encounter with South African wildlife on day 2 of my visit.




In South Africa, the monkeys are pests (South African racoons, as I call them, since they're attracted to the garbage cans). One of the staff at the camp was trying to shoo them away, while my Aussie friend and I were trying to photograph them.