It is a delight for my husband and I to see so many workers in, and headed to, Chile reaching out to abused and at-risk children. Eliana, the clown featured in the video, has truly stepped into her spiritual gifts in the past five years. I remember helping her sew her first clown pants out of an old tablecloth! Please remember this ministry in prayer, and if able, designate some funds to keep it running! You can give here: http://www.emm.org/donateform/projects-k2/item/765-children-at-risk-in-chile
Suji spread the pasty batter over the hot pan, widening it out into a thin circle with the back of a spoon. Just the way I do it, actually. Dosas only take a minute to cook, only a minute until they’re used, warm and delicious, to scoop up sambal and curry and potatoes with cumin and chili. This was breakfast in her home on day two of our new friendship.
I took in the details of her apartment; metal plates, cups, and specialty cooking dishes. A hefty industrial blender. A sparkling new vintage-style bicycle in the living room with the price tag hanging on it. The deep permeation of cooking spices so that to breathe is almost to taste curry. Dried flowers glued to a framed portrait of Hindu gods.
I had brushed up on Indian dining etiquette before I came over, so I asked to wash my hands before I ate and carefully made sure the dosa and the sauces ended together. I also, genuinely, complimented the food profusely which brought a quietly pleased half-smile to her face.
We went to a lecture together that my friend was giving on using natural and herbal remedies. It was the first time she’d ever been in a church building and found it amazingly “huge”. We visited another friend’s greenhouse and I tried to buy her flowers, but she would have none of it. For some reason that I may never understand, the thought of it made her sad.
We talked and talked. Ninety percent of our conversation was her asking for work, for a job, for me to tell people that she is a good cook and can sell a whole meal, that she has a clean kitchen, etc. I honestly wish I were as well-connected as my refugee/immigrant friends think I am. Or as rich (many have asked if they could clean for me, etc). Most of all, I wish I were seen as a person rather than a resource.
I do understand it, I do. It is very rattling to be without work and bills coming due. And this all without the cushion of extended family nearby or even the security of speaking the local tongue. After many years overseas in third world countries, I have developed a pretty thick skin to being seen as a rich resource rather than a person, but still it at times saddens me. Can you not see below the rind? I’m a person, not a means to an end.
Invariably though, as relationships progress, that does happen and true friendship emerges. Sometimes they’re a bit embarrassed about how the relationship began. In Chile a friend was chagrined that he made a big deal of showing me all the holes in his sweater the first day we met.
But here’s the grace, if you catch it….when you feel like a resource instead of a person, it is an excellent cautionary sign that you may be treating the other person like a charity case or a project instead of a person. The sword cuts both ways.
We need to see and be seen. We need to honor the sacred life before us and give it all the dignity owed to one of God’s creations. We need to see below the rind and there begin, truly, to love.
We stood in the remnants of Juan’s home in Concepcion, Chile. The walls tilted in wildly. Tears ran down his cheeks; he had built this home with his own two hands. Raised his children here. The earthquake took all that away within minutes. Unlike his neighbors who were crushed by debris, his family survived; they would live another day and make a new home elsewhere. But, for now, there was just a lot of loss, a lot of grieving to be done. How do you gather up the fragments, leave your beloved neighborhood, where people know your name and whose children played with yours, where the banter at day’s end was familiar and comforting as old slippers, broken-in just right? How do you start over? “Are you afraid to be in here?”, I asked Juan, because I certainly was afraid; the walls and ceilings bulged and sagged threateningly. “Yes, I am afraid. This could collapse at any second”. Staying wasn’t an option.
It was Sunday, a day I had dreaded. For the last time as a member, we slid into our pew and opened the hymnal. Words stuck in my throat and I just found my eyes wandering to faces, to backs of heads. I counted our losses, person by person.
We left our church yesterday. We didn’t sneak out the back door (though it was tempting). We didn’t storm out either. We got up front with our pastor and we shared a short letter:
Dearest Friends and Family,
We have a hard thing to share this morning. We are leaving Landisville. This has not been an easy nor a light decision to make. You have been our community for many years. You have nurtured us, you have sent us. When I think of all that God did in Chile during our time there, I just thank Him for you; without you we could not have gone and made disciples. We thank you so much for your generosity and support.
There are issues being debated here and in the broader Mennonite Church that we do not believe are debatable. Melodie Smith, now Melodie Dum, said recently that within the church there is room for diversity of belief on homosexuality. There certainly may be room; the church may be like a large bus with a seat available for everyone, but if the bus is headed to New York and God has called you to Miami, it doesn’t matter if there’s a seat for you, it is not going the way you must go.
Getting off the bus has all the pain and sting of a separation. Please forgive us if we have offended or hurt you in our journeys together. Our sincerest aim was to be a part of you, not to part from you. We love you and will miss you.
Our assignment in Honduras has been postponed indefinitely as EMM does not send “homeless” missionaries. If we find another church family who, after we have been rooted-in with them and knit together, agrees to send us, then we will have that hope of going. If not, the monies you’ve invested into this vision will go toward sending others, but it will not be wasted, that we can be sure of. Please pray for a family to be sent to fulfill the role in Honduras, one that could bring such blessing to so many.
In closing, I ask for your prayers; our family weeps at the loss of you. Please pray for God’s Spirit to direct and guide us. Please pray for our children, for whom transition has been the default of their young lives, that God would be their firm place which never shifts nor changes. Please pray that God would give us hope in this time of trial.
I was too afraid to look up as Dustin read. My eyes blurred and I examined the wood grain of the podium. I didn’t want to see the hurt, confusion, or ambivalence on those beloved faces. Some would be glad to see us go. Some would be offended, as if our leaving were a judgment on their staying. Some would be quite sad.
We were outspoken, see, on both our love for people with homosexual dispositions AND our love of God’s Word. We didn’t believe that stepping towards anyone in love involved a stepping away from the Bible and it’s teachings. We believe that practicing homosexuality is a sin, just as adultery is, just as lying is. We don’t vilify it as the worst, nor ignore it as unimportant. We don’t want our own sins to be accepted, neither do we do anyone else that injury.
Maybe we weren’t in the minority, but we were quite alone in speaking openly. It is odd to feel like a radical when you’re simply agreeing with orthodox Christian beliefs, which have been held true for millennia. It is strange for the Bible to be treated as so pliable a thing and for human sympathy to be heralded over love.
We tried for three years. We met with leaders, we prayed, we shared. We waited semi-patiently. Then it seems, our decision was drastically hurried up by several important turning points in the Mennonite church. Eastern Mennonite University announced a listening/discerning time to see whether they would allow practicing homosexual professors. One of the conferences ordained a practicing lesbian. Our own church hosted a play about a man and his son who has just come out as gay, inviting viewers to laugh, to cry, to be confused. Sure, it was a story, but it was clearly a platform; to continue this “dialogue” which so often has felt like a dogged monologue.
Our pastor helped us through the leaving process and we so valued his wisdom. In emails back and forth, he asked if this was the only reason we were leaving. I responded:
About cause for leaving; the debate about homosexuality is the surface manifestation (and to us a particularly disturbing one) of a deeper issue; sort of like the blue coloring of a bruise, the injury being actually under the skin. How pliable we think scripture is is under there. How we interpret scripture and whether we take into account two millennia of the church’s conclusions on sexuality, immorality, gender, and suffering. Sometimes I imagine pre-schism unity as a thick trunk, then branching off into Rome, then branching again smaller yet post-Reformation, and then splintering yet more into denominations and then tiny twigs where we keep extending out our particular interpretations ad nauseum, are we not near to breaking in this persistent, growing, uniqueness? Are our beliefs to be so very shifting and transient, like the culture’s? I feel the strength of the tree so very much less under my feet each year it seems, the farther out on the twig we go. But these are harder things yet to share on a Sunday morning with a shocked congregation taking it in that we are leaving them. Roots are more tangled than the plants above them. So, yes, it is too simplistic to say that disagreement over homosexuality is the reason we’re leaving, but it is the most tangible present reason; it’s the coloring over the injury that marks the spot of distress. If the knot of contention were switched to questioning whether the miracles of the Bible actually happened, I dare say the bruise would be much the same; it questions the same thing, the veracity of scripture and whether we are compelled to take it plainly.
Juan and my teammate Bekii Kisamore and I bowed our heads in prayer. Tears made wet trails down Juan’s face and hit the rubble-strewn floor. “This, this is what people need”. He then led us to his yard and showed us his “hope”. A beautiful copihue vine with full, generous blooms, snaking up the crumbling wall of his neighbor’s home, where the couple died clutching their small child in their arms. It was a “sign of life” for him, and he brought it water from the countryside to keep it going while all else was in ruin. He shared cuttings with us, he shared his hope with us.
Our decision to leave our church meant that we had lost not only our community, but our vocation as well. To be sent, you need a sending body. Our beautiful dream came crashing down and I am still reeling from that. I don’t know how to live without a dream. I feel like I’m flailing, like the floor has given way beneath me. If not for the peace that God has given us that we are obeying His voice, I do not know how I would go on.
There is just enough light to know that a path is before us. I cling to this verse from Isaiah 30:20,21:
Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
Grandpa Marvin Olson framed within the hay loft on the farm.
Two grandparents within a year’s span. That’s entirely too much grieving for the soul to swallow without feeling swallowed. Two times I boarded flights alone; one while carrying Henrik inside, one with Henrik in my arms. He would never know the beautiful people being laid into the ground this side of Heaven. How she loved babies, how tender her heart and hands were, for so strong and determined a woman. How his cow call sounded, how much he loved napping on the floor after a big lunch, how his eyes were so twinkly. Henrik wouldn’t understand what it meant to me as a child, to travel from my home state of Montana out to North Dakota, to the wide expanse of farmland, to the two farms that mattered most in this world. We’d go for Christmases or Thanksgivings or summers that baked hot on the prairie.
On the farm.
Great Grandma Sophie.
Grandpa Marvin and Grandma Violet.
It was easy to envy my cousins. They were raised in North Dakota and saw my grandparents all the time it seemed. They had more stories with them and I imagined how many more wild kittens they got to catch and how many more rope swing rides up in the hayloft they got and how many chicken eggs they got to collect in the tin bucket for Grandma O.
I didn’t want to live in North Dakota though; I loved Montana with its mountains and rivers and skiing and beautiful camping spots. I just wanted to bundle up all that I loved in North Dakota and drag it into Montana, right next door would be nice. I haven’t been able to shake that dream; I still want to do that, though my bundle would be ponderously large considering all the people and places I’ve fallen in love with.
Crossing the Dearborn River at our cabin.
God has given me wings. Many times. First it was to Pennsylvania, where my husband’s roots are (as he’d tell you proudly, all the way back to William Penn who gave his family their land deed). Then to Saskatchewan, Canada so he could finish his degree in the more financially friendly north. Then to Costa Rica to learn Spanish. Then to Chile to serve as Christian missionaries. Then to Pennsylvania once again, with flight plans ready to go to Honduras next.
Every home I’ve lived in I’ve bloomed right into. I plant flowers, I tuck bulbs into the dark damp earth (some that I’d never see bloom).
In my garden beds in Chile.
My front beds in Pennsylvania. This was all just grass when we moved in.
Maybe I understand why I explode into each home I’ve lived in. Part of me wants it all to look like we’ve been here a while, like we’re going to make lots of memories here. I want it to look and feel rooted. Because flying is tiring and sometimes you just want to sink into the good dirt and stay awhile.
“Bloom where you’re planted”, they say, but I’d add, “And bloom wherever you’re blown too”. If God leads you out of native bower, dare to bloom there. If you miss family get-togethers and memories made with them, if you don’t get to have all that, grieve it and give it, give it into God’s hands. He who willingly removed himself from God’s immediate presence and glory for 33 years can understand your longing for home.
Last visit with Grandma Gwendolyn before her death.
Life is both wonderful and painful and the staying or going doesn’t mitigate that.
If we can’t have it all this side of eternity, let us lean into our lot full heartedly. Grieving that which isn’t ours to enjoy, but bursting wide with the joy of what we do have. And you know my dream? Of having all whom I love all together in one place? Why, that just may happen, on the other side of when eyes close in death and awaken in truest life.
-drawn by Sophia during church on the bulletin
When we were first dropping through the clouds and the verdant green landscape sprawled out below us, I think I was in a state of hyper-awareness. I noticed everything. This was Chile, our new home for the next half a dozen years.
I noticed how some of the mountains were alarmingly peaked (I’d later learn they were volcanoes). I noticed how ramshackle most of the homes were. I noticed how my heart was pounding in excitement and fear and that what I wanted most to notice within my heart was hope. Hope that this place would be home, and all that that word entails.
I was looking for signs, I was so soul-awake that it was exhausting. One can only suffer so much interior thought-feeling-emotion processing. Time to trigger the automaton: GET LUGGAGE. CHANGE BABY’S DIAPER. FIND EXIT.
If there were a word more drastic than “overwhelming”, I’d use it to describe our first week in Chile. We moved our family of four (us and our two year-old and two month-old) into a two-bedroom apartment with another Chilean family of four occupying the second bedroom. Imagine that a moment so I won’t have to elaborate on how that was. Thank you.
I cried every day.
I tried to do it silently because the walls were so thin and I didn’t want the Chilean family to think I’d lost my marbles. Or whatever the equivalent would be in Spanish idioms. I really wanted to be a good missionary, ready for anything, up to anything, being immortal wouldn’t hurt.
God had my attention as He stripped away every layer of comfort, independence, and privacy that my North American life had assured me was my birthright. There were no locks on our doors, people came and went and startled us mid-clothing change. It was always cold, the wood stove incapable of keeping up. We had no vehicle, dependent on the erratic buses and the mercy of other missionaries. We shared a washer with two other families, and I waited anxiously for our clothing to dry in front of the wood stove so that my potty-training daughter would have a pair of pants to wear. I felt like I was being broken, but I was really just being peeled.
Do you know how after you fast for a number of days, the first food you eat tastes exquisite? Even if it’s a common cracker? The not-having makes the having quite sweet, quite special.
And so the tangled, wrangled gift that God was giving me; He gave everything back to me after I’d learned how to love Him without it.
I’d learned to pay attention. To how good it feels to wrap cold hands around a cup of something hot after a walk in the freezing rain. To how a word of encouragement can relight the fire of hope within my heart. To how privacy and independence and comfort are gifts, not rights. To be thankful in all circumstances, really thankful, because there are gifts and lessons which will become gifts later. To how the rain that re-rinses the clothing that was supposed to be out drying also made an epic puddle for two happy kids to splash in. Let us pay attention, and then, with hearts wide open, breathe thanks.