Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Next Chapter

If you had told me this time last year that Gil and I would get to the third week of May without job contracts, that there would be a global pandemic and we would have to leave Tanzania three months early, on top of all the other stressful things that happened this year, I probably would have spent the year hiding under the bed.

I guess it's a good thing that God gives us strength to handle just today. Not knowing the future is a mercy.

But here I am, on June 2, 2020, and we finally know what's next. Gil has accepted a teaching job at a school in Southern California, and we will be moving to our new city in about three weeks.

Back in October, I asked you, "Anybody out there looking for people like us?" You were amazing! We got emails from all over the United States, some with suggestions of places and ministries we should consider, and others that were practically job offers. It was really exciting to think about all of the possibilities that were out there for us.

But as Gil and I really started to consider what were going to be our priorities for this next chapter, we kept coming back to one thing: Our Kids. Our kids were the primary reason we had decided to move to the States at this particular time. With their unique backgrounds, we wanted them to adjust to American life while they were still young. So while there was a part of us that really wanted to jump into something crazy and amazing like moving to Houston to work with refugees, we realized that wasn't what would be best for our family at this time.

Gil and I began to prioritize two things: We wanted to live as close as possible to extended family (which narrowed locations down to California or Arizona), and one of us would need to teach at a Christian school. When we considered the educational options out there, we decided that a small Christian school would be the best way for our particular kids to transition to American life. In order to afford it, that meant one of us needed to teach at one.

So Gil and I started researching Christian schools all throughout California and Arizona. We eliminated all of the ones that were in areas we couldn't afford to live in, which for California, was most of them. We sent out dozens of resumes and a number of applications. We had some good leads. Surely we would have job offers by March or April....right?

Wrong. As you all know, the world stood still in March and April. Schools in particular became paralyzed by the unknowns. No one was hiring. In fact, most of us wondered if education in general would ever be the same again. So all the days ticked by in March....April....and into May. Along with dealing with my own roller coaster of emotions due to our early and sudden departure from Tanzania came increasing concern about our future. I started envisioning my life as a never-ending vagabond, jumping from one hospitable relative to another.

Then the miracle happened: A position opened up for a Bible and History teacher at a Christian school in Southern California. A fantastic school and the perfect location--half a day's driving distance from all of our family, and affordable enough that we could manage to, you know, feed our children after paying rent. Gil went through several interviews with several people. He was offered the job just over a week ago.

And the miraculous part? This is the school where one of our very best friends from Tanzania, Ben Snyder, is the principal. You might remember that I wrote about the Snyder family in The Happiest Kind of Sadness: Portrait of a Friendship and The Adoption Story of Zawadi, the Parents Who Waited for Her, and the God of Miracles. When the Snyders moved to California a year ago, we were thrilled that meant we might be able to occasionally see them. We talked about how cool it would be if that meant our lives might cross again, but we didn't dare to hope that would actually happen. I mean, what would be the odds?

But God doesn't work by odds. There was one position available at their high school for next year, and it was a position that Gil just happened to be uniquely qualified for.

Right around the same time Gil got this offer, another one came in as well, which threw us for a loop for about a week. But really, it was an obvious choice. God had answered our prayers and orchestrated a seemingly impossible set of requests: Living in California, a job at a Christian school, and incredibly, doing life again with some of our best friends.

There's another question, of course, that you might be asking: What are you going to be doing, Amy? Well, that's another story. I too have accepted a job, but I'm not ready to write about it yet. Partly because the journey to my new job is a story that will take a while to tell. But mainly because I still have several more weeks left as elementary principal at Haven of Peace Academy. My mind and heart still belong there at the moment, so I will write about the new job when this one is finished.

In the meantime, yesterday we found a place to live and we will move in in about three weeks. We've lived with uncertainty for so long that my emotions haven't quite caught up yet. Am I really allowed to be excited? I can't write out this story without seeing for myself the hand of God in working this all together for us. I am so very thankful.

The Medinas and Snyders back together again, this time in California.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Icons of Their Tanzanian Childhood

"Those who repatriate to their “home” country aren’t just moving from one state or province to another. They aren’t just losing a measurable number of people, places and 'sacred objects.' It’s the intangibles that exacerbate their grief and intensify their response to it. Missionaries’ Kids who are enduring transition have lost the languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, security, familiarity and belonging that have been their life—an integral part of who they are and how they view the world. When they leave their heart-home, it feels as if they’re surrendering their identity too." (Michele Phoenix)

Here's just a sample of those "languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, and familiarity" that my kids have lost in moving to America. I know that kids adapt. My kids are great at it. But I don't want them to ever forget where they came from, and the many things that made their childhoods so special.

Azam Juices 
Azam juice boxes are a Tanzanian icon; frozen Azam juice boxes are a Haven of Peace Academy icon. Slice off the top with a knife and you have an instant popsicle. The snack bar sells them daily; my kids have eaten probably thousands in their lifetime.

Hot Christmases
Living in the Southern Hemisphere  means the seasons are reversed. Living at sea level near the equator means it never gets cold. The hottest time of the year is December and January, which means we never had a cold Christmas in Dar es Salaam. However, even in July, which is technically "winter," never gets below the mid-70's. Ever. Even when it's raining. Which explains why my children are freezing in California air conditioning. 

Piles of Pineapples
I always said that pineapple season, which starts in November and goes through February, is Tanzania's apology for the stifling hot weather. Piles and piles of pineapples are sold on the roadside during pineapple season. During the height, our family would eat two a day.  

"That Good Chicken Place"--our version of fast food
Street food was the only form of fast food in our area, and just about every Saturday night I would stop by this outdoor restaurant to buy grilled chicken, fries, or rice and vegetables. This chicken? To die for. Seriously. Service would take anywhere from 15-40 minutes, so I guess it wasn't always 'fast.' But I didn't have to cook it, so it was worth waiting for.

Chips Mayai and Beans and Rice

Beans and rice are like Tanzanian mac and cheese. When I knew I would have a lot of kids over at the house, beans and rice were on the menu. All kids love them, or they learn to. Chips mayai is French Fries cooked with eggs like an omelet. Everyone loves chips mayai. Not a breakfast food, though. This is lunch.

What is known as a "bajaji" is a three-wheeled rickshaw imported from India. We had a car, but just one, so that meant that part of the family often needed another form of transportation. Bajajis are cheaper than taxis and safer than motorbikes or buses, so we used them often. 

Nets and Fans
Mosquito nets (soaked in Permethrin) and fans attached to their beds was how we kept out the bugs and kept the air moving. Josiah is so used to sleeping with a fan straight on his face that he has politely asked for a fan everywhere we've been visiting in the States--even if it's not hot. 

Market Shopping

Sometimes we would be driving along and someone would yell out "Hey, there's the Croc guy!" We would quickly pull over because whenever you saw the Croc guy with his cart fulled of used Crocs for sale (shipped over from U.S. thrift stores), you knew that it was time to stock up on Crocs. Buying used clothes and shoes from open air markets was our normal. Picking out gorgeous Tanzanian fabric and having it tailor-made into dresses was a treat. 

Playing in Unusual Places
So, playing Capture the Flag or Nerf Wars in the half-finished, abandoned hotel next door to their friends' house was totally cool. You just had to be careful to avoid the bats, of course. 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Pray for Sheshi

During a time of deep crisis in our community in January, our chaplain at Haven of Peace Academy, Sheshi Kaniki, stood before us at a staff meeting and exhorted us: "Nothing you experience will ever be worse than what you have already been saved from."

I wrote it down on a post-it note and stuck it on the wall in front of my desk. I repeated those words to myself numerous times over the following weeks of stress as it felt like we were in a continual state of crisis. I wrote about that season here, and I ended it with Sheshi's quote.

That was before COVID-19. The day I left my office for the last time, I can't remember if I took that post-it note with me. Maybe I'll find it someday when I finally get to unpack. Or maybe the next principal will see it there waiting for her. I do know that I kept thinking about those words as my life was wrenched out of Tanzania at the end of March.

And now, I'm thinking about Sheshi's words again. Because on Saturday, I found out that Sheshi has a large, malignant brain tumor. In fact, that brain tumor must have been growing the day that he stood before our staff and exhorted us with his words of truth.

Sheshi is not only HOPAC's chaplain, but the church-planter and pastor of the vibrant, gospel-centered church we attended in Dar es Salaam. His wife, Trudie, is my friend and co-worker at HOPAC. She coordinates our Service Learning program. Their youngest son, Tim, has been Josiah's best friend since first grade.

Sheshi and Trudie are one of those dynamic couples who impact everyone they come across. They make you feel seen, loved, and accepted, even if they've only just met you. They are incredibly godly, wise, and humble. I remember walking past our assembly hall a couple of months ago during the middle school chapel, and listening to Sheshi speak to the kids. I don't remember what he was saying, but I do remember thinking, I am so incredibly grateful that this man is investing in my children.

So I can't write this without waves of grief. I spent most of Saturday hidden away from my kids, because I was so distraught and I wasn't at liberty to tell them why just yet.

Please, my friends, pray for Sheshi and his family. If you go to the GoFundMe page set up for him by his friends, you'll read more about his background and the huge impact he has on our community and the city of Dar es Salaam. If the story grabs your heart, sign up to receive prayer updates using this link. (I'm helping to send out those updates.)

I have no doubt that Sheshi still stands by his words, even in this.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Stripping Away

It might have been a mistake to keep using the same day planner.

I like to plan ahead, you see, which means that these days, when I turn the page in my planner, I see depressing things like "Sports Day" and "Boot Sale" and "Remember to announce April's House winner." Little reminders, all over the place, of what I've lost. So I cross those things out and write in "Video call, 8:00" because what else is there to write in my planner these days?

Remember that scene in Back to the Future Part II when Biff goes back in time to give the Almanac to his younger self and it skews the future so that when Marty returns to 1985 he finds himself in an alternate universe? That's what this feels like, right? An alternate universe. And one day I'll wake up from this bad dream and look at my planner and it really will be Sports Day. Where is Doc with his time machine when you need him?

There simply is not enough space here to express how much I hate this alternate universe. Not because my conditions are miserable (because they are not; we are enjoying time with extended family), but because I am being stripped of the parts of me that I have valued the most.

You might recall that recently I wrote an entire post on how much I love crossing things off of lists. Finishing a task gives me a thrill. You want to know how many tasks I can't finish right now? About a bazillion. Like, that whole three-year commitment to being principal at a school that I have invested in for almost 20 years? Yeah, that little thing. Don't get to cross it off my list. Sure, I'm still frantically working, but I feel like I'm in a hamster wheel.

I'm a perfectionist. I like to do things well. I like to do things on time. I despise procrastination. I never once pulled all-nighter in college. Yet now? I feel like I'm always 10 hours behind. That would be because I am 10 hours behind. I wake up in the morning in California and it's already evening in Tanzania. A few times in my childhood, I experienced that sinking feeling that everyone had already turned in their homework assignment except me. Those experiences still give me nightmares. Now, I wake up every single morning, open my computer, and get that same feeling.

My sense of isolation and disconnection is exacerbated by the fact that I have teachers living in four locations spanning ten time zones and students in even more. I walk around these California neighborhoods and see the signs posted on lawns, "We love Mrs.______!" for Teacher Appreciation Week, but I can't do that for my teachers. My teachers are working their tails off, logging in dozens more hours a week than usual, with a fraction of the rewards that come from teaching physical children in a physical classroom. They are teaching during odd hours so that they can help groups of kids on opposite sides of the world. And I can't even give them a stupid sign on their lawns. I hate being mediocre. Yet these days, that's all I've got to offer.

Of course, alongside running in my own hamster wheel, I'm also helping my children with Distance Learning, which means that I too am bordering on the edge of my sanity. If anyone was enviously thinking that Mrs. Medina must be doing such a fabulous job with Distance Learning since she's the principal and Perfectly Patient All of the Time, well, I guess it's a good thing you can't visit me so that I don't completely decimate my reputation. Last week Johnny started crying during one particularly tense exchange over spelling words and he wailed, "Everything was better in Tanzania!" So then I started crying too. Me too, Buddy. I want out of this alternate universe. (I may or may not have offered to pay a million dollars to Johnny's second grade teacher to come to California and teach him.)

It's like we're all working twice as hard but with half of the productivity, which is probably why I feel frustrated 92% of the time. Did I mention I really like productivity? Efficiency, productivity, perfectionism, planning. All of those things have been thrown out of the window, and since they were my most-cherished values, I feel like jumping out along with them.

I know better, of course. I know that what I'm supposed to think is that all of my values--as good as they are--still must submit themselves to God's will. That God doesn't really care about my efficiency and productivity as much as I do, and that as those "values" are being stripped away from my heart, the revealed flesh that is underneath sits raw and exposed before God. I am nothing without Him. I do no good other than the good He does through me. I accomplish nothing of value other than what He deems is important. I know I'm supposed to think that, but my flesh wrangles and wrestles and beats up against it.

I know that He wins in my weakness. I need to give up this fight.

At the start of the school year, I planned out all of the elementary school Bible verses for whole year. Providentially, the verse that was scheduled for the week of March 23 (when everything fell apart) was Proverbs 19:21: Many are the plans in a person's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails. 

So there you have it. What I wrote in my planner was just that--My Plan and nothing more. It was just ink on paper, a fantasy that was never meant to exist. This isn't an alternate universe, it is The Plan, the one that was meant to be from the beginning of time. Any control I thought I had was just an illusion.

It's ironic that I started this job as principal flat on my face, feeling like a complete failure, and now here I am again, ending the job in a similar way. At the beginning, I fell apart with anxiety, not knowing if had what it takes to do well. Now I know I can, but instead of running past the finish line, I have to limp there, my feet chained together with a world crisis. I look back now and know that starting in weakness was incredibly good for me--that it set the stage for the humility and God-dependence I would need for this season. So why can't I trust Him with the ending as well?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

We Can't Be Sure Everything Is Going to Be Okay

Since being unexpectedly wrenched from our Tanzanian home a month ago due to COVID-19, my family has been living as vagabonds in California, moving in with various relatives every couple of weeks. (It’s hard to shelter-in-place when you have no home.) This week we’re with some in-laws, and I’ve been walking the neighborhood daily.

Whenever I visit California, the perfectly manicured HOA lawns are always a shock to my system after living in a chaotic East African city. These days, the spring roses are bursting into bloom around me, as if in defiance of the pain the world is facing. And like spring flowers, popping up in neighbors’ yards are identical red cardboard signs that read: Everything is going to be okay. There are dozens of them, and they mock me as I pass by. How do you know everything is going to be okay? I silently yell at those signs. I just had to leave my home three months early, and we had four days’ notice. We lived in Tanzania for sixteen years, and since we were planning on relocating in July, this meant we got no closure, no good-byes, no tying up loose ends. Just grief and trauma. We don’t have jobs or a home. So please don’t tell me everything is going to be okay. I’m not in the mood. 

I walk, and I restlessly pound out my lament to God: How long, O Lord? How long before we can start a normal life again? How long before I know with confidence that the school, the friends, the community I left behind in Tanzania will be okay? How long before this knot of anxiety goes away, the weight of grief lifts off my chest?

I love the stories of God’s deliverance in Scripture. The walls falling down, the giant conquered, the blind man healed. But I have this tendency to speed read through the Bible, focusing on the happy endings and ignoring the miserable parts in between. Yes, God's people were dramatically rescued from slavery in Egypt. (After 400 years of back-breaking suffering.) Yes, they made it to the Promised Land. (After 40 years of death in the desert.) Sure, God promised them a "hope and a future”....but it would come after 70 years in exile. (That part doesn’t make it onto the coffee mugs.) The Messiah arrived! (After 400 years of silence from God.)

Ever wonder what it must have felt like to live in the “in between” years before God’s miraculous deliverance? Probably felt pretty defeated, and isolated, and alone. Many, many, many of God’s faithful never saw his deliverance in their lifetimes. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised (Heb 11). You could say that for them, everything did not turn out to be okay. That’s probably why amongst the miraculous stories was a whole lot of waiting and groaning and begging for redemption.

My soul is in deep anguish.  How long, Lord, how long? (Ps. 6)

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts  and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Ps. 13)

We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be. (Ps. 74)

How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? (Jer. 12)

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? (Hab. 1)

How long, O Lord? How long? What if life doesn’t return to normal in months, or years, or even ever in our lifetime? What if things get worse? What if everything will not be okay? The truth is that if “okay” means safety, prosperity, and comfort, I might not get that. There is no guarantee. And judging from Christian history and the lives of my Christian brothers and sisters around the world, there is no precedent that God promises me those things.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned during my life overseas was in watching the lives of those who have lived and died asking, “How long, O Lord?”  She follows Jesus and her husband keeps cheating on her and he got her pregnant with a fourth child and she has only an elementary education and there is no government support and she works incredibly hard but nothing ever gets better. Oh, and even before COVID-19, there already were a dozen diseases around that could kill her or her children on any given day. Yet still, she perseveres in faith.

I must remember that I am not promised that everything is going to be okay. In my lifetime, it might not be.

Unless, that is, we’re talking about the very, very end. I am not promised heaven on earth. I am, however, promised heaven. That’s why Hebrews 11 ends with this: These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better.

How long, O Lord, until everything will be okay? Maybe not ever. But I can be okay, because I am a foreigner on this earth. This is not where I belong. I can see Your redemption in the distance, and in the meantime, I long for a better country--a heavenly one. 

This article was first published at A Life Overseas.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Not Just Any Rock

The day before we left Tanzania last month, I found my rock from Liberia in a bathroom drawer. I had forgotten it was there; I had forgotten to look for it, and I came across it by chance. A shock went through me when I saw it, because it was with some things I was going to throw away, and I shuddered to think that I could have accidentally thrown it out in my hasty packing. I quickly put it in a small bag with other important things that went into my carry-on luggage.

This was not just any rock.

I found this rock on the shores of the ELWA beach in Liberia where I grew up. It was smooth, its rough edges worn off by the sand and waves. I kept it on my windowsill with other childhood treasures. One day, it fell off and split into two pieces.

When I was twelve, my family left Liberia for a year. The plan was that I would do 8th grade in the States, and then we would return to Liberia for the rest of high school. I loved Liberia. It was home to me, and I was not looking forward to being away for a year.

I took the broken-off piece of that rock and hid it in a corner of our house. I took the larger piece with me to California. I didn't tell anyone I was doing this, and looking back, I'm actually pretty shocked that as a twelve-year-old, I thought of something so symbolic. I was leaving part of myself in Liberia. When I returned, I would be complete again.

Half way through that year, my family listened in despair as we heard reports of rebel soldiers closing in on the capital city in Liberia, of a government coup, of panic and evacuation of almost all the missionaries. Then--a civil war, a descent into chaos and devastation.

We never went back. We lost all of our possessions. We never said goodbye. People we knew were killed. Suddenly loss and grief were a part of my story in a way they never had been before. So it was fitting that the two halves of my rock never found their way together again.

Just a few short months later, we were re-stationed on the other side of the continent, this time in Ethiopia. I was in 9th grade, and chose to go to boarding school in Kenya. I had a new school and a new direction. But that year, rebels descended into the capital city in Ethiopia. During school announcements, all of us missionary kids from Ethiopia kept getting pulled aside for grave conversations. Things were bad, they said. Some of our parents were getting evacuated, they said. My mom and my brother were among them. They were on the last flight out, and later my mom told me how they watched the tanks roll into the airport as the plane left the runway.

My dad stayed behind with some other men, and they slept in a windowless hallway at night. I was still at school. For six weeks, my family was on three different countries. When I arrived back in Ethiopia, the city still had curfews and lockdowns. My dad crammed what he could into several suitcases, and he and I left. Once again, I didn't get to say goodbye.

I look back on the timeline of my childhood, and Liberia and Ethiopia lay there like the jagged end of my broken rock. No opportunity to finish well. No closure. Just loss.

The night that we were told we had to leave Tanzania, that wound re-opened. I can't believe this is happening to me again, I wailed to Gil. I can't believe now it's happening to my own kids. As foreigners living in a land that's not our own, we like to believe that we belong there. That we can pretend it's part of us. Then we are unceremoniously yanked away, and given the stark reminder that like it or not, we don't belong. Yes, that blue passport is a privilege, but sometimes it takes me places I don't want to go.

The grief sits on my chest every day. It's hard to separate out its various forms. Which is the grief in leaving Tanzania early? Which is the grief in knowing that it won't be my home again? Which is the grief for the sorrows my children are facing, or my friends back in Tanzania, or my beloved school? They all just swirl into one complicated mixture of sadness.

C.S. Lewis wrote, "To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken." I find myself not particularly eager to move beyond this grief. It is sacred and beautiful. Being wrenched from Tanzania is worth grieving over, because it was worth loving.

Perhaps the fault in my youthful naivete was assuming that something, once broken, could ever be put back together in the same way again. Jesus' body, when gloriously resurrected, still bore the scars of his suffering. If I could choose, would I want my scars erased? Probably not. They are part of my story, of who I became, of God's work in my life. That is the mysterious glory of redemption. And redemption is how we see through the tiny keyhole that shows us the beauty on the other side of that giant door of suffering.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Leaving: In Pictures

Early March: I posted a picture on Facebook announcing that Africa could send America toilet paper. We had plenty.

March 13: All School assembly for Service Emphasis Week--No social distancing happening here!

From Friday afternoon to the following Monday: No kids on campus. Everything changed in one weekend.

Gearing up for Distance Learning

My last day in my office. We had bought tickets the night before. "Take a picture," I told Gil. "Just in case I don't make it back." Why do we smile for pictures even when we are miserable? 

Friends stopped by to say good-bye. My kids with the celebrity-quadruplets. Their presence brings sunshine into any room. 

Baby shoes from my kids' early days. Sentimental things I had saved, but decided we had no room to bring with us. So I took pictures instead. 

To post on Facebook: "Looking for a home for our sweet dog."

More friends stopping by to say goodbye. It was rushed, but I am so thankful for every last one of these. A quick goodbye is better than none at all.
Sorting everything to sell. I sold kitchen containers with the flour still in them.

Stopped by school one last time. I took pictures of everything, wanting to grab hold of every memory. This is the administration building where my office is, where I spent the last three years. 

The famous baobab tree at HOPAC. It was there before we were.

Visiting a very, very special family one last time. Their seven and my four fit together perfectly. 

We sold the our last dinner was at the nearby Ramada Hotel. We were shocked by how empty it was. Though life in the city seemed to be going on as normal, big changes were starting.

Saying goodbye to our gardener, Paul. He has lived on our property and been a part of our lives for ten years.

With the luggage, saying one last goodbye to Snoopy. Again, why do we smile for pictures even when we are miserable?

On the way to the airport, taking a picture of a guy in a gorilla mask who is selling gorilla masks to people stopped at intersections. Because even when you're miserable, you find ways to smile.

 I found this on one of the kids' phones: Shoppers Plaza, one of the places they've known their whole lives. 

Eating lunch at the empty Dar es Salaam airport. Hey, did you know there's KFC at the Dar airport now? This is very exciting.

Coming in for a landing in San Francisco