Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Back-Burner of Missions (and Why It Shouldn't Be That Way)



Four-year-olds don't walk, they twirl and prance. They think everything about the world is fascinating, even writing their names or matching shapes or learning to sit criss-cross applesauce.

On Saturday, I met dozens of them. They visited our kindergarten room while some teachers and I asked them to count and say their letters and watched them play and dance while we took notes. Some were shy, some were cheerful, some, we could tell, would be a handful, but that just made them all the more charming.

I was enchanted. But I was also depressed. There were just too many. Three times too many, to be exact. All of them had come to be assessed for next year's kindergarten class, and all of them were wonderful. But there were just too many. I will only be able to offer places to about a third of them.

Their parents sat outside drinking coffee under the trees. Their eyes were hopeful, expectant, a little nervous. I tried not to make much eye contact. It is just too hard, knowing that I will have to turn down most of them. I don't want to get their hopes up.

Their emails turn my stomach into knots. We've never wanted any other school for our child since she was born! HOPAC is our first and only choice. My child loved his visit with you! He is so excited to attend HOPAC now. 

I know my response will break their hearts. Your child was wonderful; we just don't have room. He can join the 40 other children on our waiting list for that class. 

We never advertise, but we never fail to have at least sixty applicants for kindergarten. For some families, it's because of the Christian environment at HOPAC. For some, it's our reputation of sending students to the world's top universities. For others, it's the price. Among similar schools in Tanzania, we offer the best quality for the lowest fees.

Mystified, parents will ask, Why don't you just expand?

And the answer is always the same: We can't get enough teachers.

Though over half of our students are Tanzanian, we are a missionary school, relying on volunteers from westernized countries to raise support to teach here. Of course, we hire Tanzanians whenever we can, but finding Tanzanian Christians who are qualified to teach in an international school is not easy. Which means we are dependent on the Church (mainly from the US and Europe) to send us teachers.

But for some reason, recruiting and sending missionary teachers is not a priority for the Church, or even for most mission agencies. Maybe because teachers fall into the category of second-class missionaries. Sometimes it feels like church planters or aid workers seem more exciting or important.

I don't understand why teachers are often on the back-burner of missions. Parents of all kinds of religious faiths are pounding down the door of our Christian school, desperate for their kids to attend. We get the privilege of influencing those kids for seven hours a day for thirteen years. We teach with a biblical worldview. We train our students in poverty alleviation. The gospel permeates everything we do. How is this ministry not a priority?

Please, Church, prioritize missionary teachers. Find them. Encourage them. Support them. It's one of the most strategic avenues of missions that I've witnessed in my twenty years overseas.

And if you're a Christian teacher, why not you?




Sunday, February 3, 2019

What Adoption Has Taught Me About Abortion


Nicole Chung's birth parents didn't want her, so they put her up for adoption. She writes about her journey to find her birth family and process her identity in the poignant memoir, All You Can Ever Know.

Nicole found out that her birth parents told her siblings and their family that the baby was born dead. They wanted her erased from memory, as if the pregnancy never happened. But life doesn't work that way. Nicole writes, "Words I’d once heard from a birth mother flashed in my mind: If there’s something that everyone should know about adoption, it’s that there is no end to this. There’s no closure."

As an adoptive parent, I've learned this tragic truth from experience as I help my own children work through their grief and loss of their first families--a loss that will continue to haunt them as they grow up and start their own families. We can celebrate the redemption and beauty of adoption till we're blue in the face, but that doesn't take away the heartbreak.

How ironic that it's the same for the birth mother. She may even tell everyone the baby died, but she knows, niggling around in her mind, refusing to be ignored, that her baby is out there, growing up somewhere. I think about that often as I look into the faces of my children who spent nine months growing in the body of another woman, their blood flowing alongside hers, listening to her voice, feeling her joy and sadness and fear. My children wish for one glimpse of her face; I wish for one chance to tell her that her baby is okay.

It's easy for us to judge the woman who wants that baby dead and hands over her money to make it all go away. Perhaps she does it because she knows, by instinct, that adoption won't grant her closure. Perhaps it scares her to death knowing that one day she may pass a person on the street that mirrors her face. Perhaps it's easier to just know that the baby is dead, and hope that a dead baby brings more closure than a baby raised by someone else who will someday inevitably want to find the woman who gave her away.

I spent years longing to be pregnant, so I don't know what it feels like. But I remember talking to a friend who kept getting pregnant despite her and her husband's efforts to hold it off. She is an amazing mother and adores all of her children, but her pregnancies were unusually harsh, and she noted the irony of hers and my situations. Despite my longing, I couldn't help but feel empathy towards her. Pregnancy starts with such a seemingly insignificant act but holds incredibly significant consequences.

Pro-lifers keep using the "But it's life" argument against abortion, without realizing that for many pro-choice women, that's not a consequential discussion any more. Everyone knows it's life. Pro-choice advocates are fighting for the right for a woman to choose not to reproduce. Sure, a third trimester baby could just be delivered and whisked off to an adoption agency, but that's not the point. Because that live baby means that somewhere out there will be a person living and breathing and thinking that has an eternal, inexplicable connection to that mother. Which could be terrifying. Terrifying enough that it's easier just to destroy it and hope that it brings closure.

It doesn't, of course. But I'm writing this today because I think it's important that instead of just loudly protesting (though that's important too), we need to take a moment to try to get into the heads of these women. Yes, laws need to change because laws shape the worldview of a nation. And laws that destroy personhood and denigrate motherhood are a worthy fight. But changing hearts is equally as important, and that's got to start by listening, understanding, empathizing, befriending. I pray for those opportunities.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

We Have a Hedgehog and His Name is Hamilton


"What do baby hedgehogs eat?" I hear Grace ask.

"I have no idea," I say.

She gives me a 13-year-old look. "I wasn't asking you, Mom. I was asking Siri."

Well, excuuuuuse me. 

Contrary to what many may believe about our life in Tanzania, we don't live in the Serengeti; we live in a city of six million people. But we do have a rather enormous backyard, and it has brought us an interesting variety of wildlife: Chickens (not really wildlife, but certainly wild), tortoises, kingfishers, monitor lizards, bats, snakes, and hedgehogs. I got over the novelty of hedgehogs a long time ago....those things are loud when they want to be--like when a dog is trying to kill it. After many, many evenings of frantic barking and wailing hedgehogs, we got used to finding the poor prickly creatures and chucking them over the fence, just to get everybody to shut up.

But then my children found a baby hedgehog, which, according to my children, is apparently an entirely different category of hedgehog which shouldn't be thrown over the fence but needs to be brought into the house and fed and named and snuggled (as much as a creature with spines can be snuggled). The children's father immediately went along with this idea as soon as Google told him that this type of hedgehog will cost you about $200 in the States. He's always up for a good deal. The children's mother was not consulted, because she is the family's stick-in-the-mud.

So there you have it: We now have added Hamilton Willow Leo Medina into our family, which is a very long name for something that weighs about five ounces. Hammie now has his own, homemade, elaborate cage complete with a hamster wheel, even though he is not a hamster and may not like wheels. In fact, he showed very little appreciation for the cage, because while we were eating dinner he got out of it and got lost in my bedroom, which meant that there were four children crawling around the floor with flashlights while Mom was hollering, "I don't want a hedgehog to die in my bedroom so no one gets to watch AFV until you find it!"

And of course, this is all very confusing to Snoopy, who as a Jack Russell was bred to search and destroy small moving creatures and has, until this point, been encouraged to do so. But no one seems to listen to me when I bring this up. Siri is smarter than me anyway, so what do I know?




Saturday, January 26, 2019

It's Not Really About the Cold

The first five hours of the drive to Lushoto take us north through the flat savannah of Tanzania--shrub brush, miles of pineapple and sisal plantations, villages of stick-and-mud houses.

But after those five hours, we get to a junction where we make a sharp right, and the road winds another two hours up into the Usambara mountain range, where the town of Lushoto is located. We drive past waterfalls and rock formations, sharing the the curvy mountain roads with elderly women carrying enormous bundles of sticks on their heads.

Our family has a tradition when we make that right turn up into the mountains. We note the outside temperature, which is usually somewhere around 34 degrees (94 degrees Fahrenheit) and we make bets as to what the temperature will be when we hit Lushoto. This year the winner had predicted 24 degrees (75 degrees Fahrenheit), which is just about as luxurious as we could expect when escaping the heat monster of Dar es Salaam.

We say that the reason we love Lushoto is because of the cold, and that's why we've been there over a dozen times during our years in Tanzania. But there's more to it than that. Because we've never gone to Lushoto alone, but always with people we've called family during that particular year.

This year, Johnny busted open his knee one night while the kids were careening around in the dark, and we realized pretty quickly he was going to need stitches. Lushoto is remote town, and there's no 24-hour urgent care we could take him to, so we needed to wait until morning. But our friends immediately sprang into action, collecting bandages and painkillers and sticks to act as a splint. (In the end, one friend found a random pair of nunchucks in a shed, so Johnny had the most awesome splint ever invented.)

Somehow we keep going back to Lushoto, even though not all the memories are happy. Ironically, the only other time our family has experienced stitches was also in Lushoto, when Gil put his arm through a glass window seven years ago. Then there was also the time a different year when friends were robbed of their computer and camera while we were all eating dinner. Or the time when one teenager got typhoid, or the time when one family rolled their van on the way home.

But I think the common denominator each time has been that whether we are playing games or reveling in our long sleeves and drinking cappuccinos (not me--blech--but this is the highlight for my friends), or whether we are figuring out how to splint a seven-year-old's leg with nunchucks, life has just kept throwing us together with these people. And Lushoto kind of encapsulates that for all of us--the highest highs and the lowest lows--which in the end create these kind of bonds that usually only happen when you share blood.

One of these families is leaving Tanzania forever next week, and another is on their way to leave this summer. We're not sure how many Lushoto years our own family has left. So the bitter mixes with the sweet in the midst of all the memories. But that's kind of what makes memories stronger, isn't it?



Grace's birthday always happens when we're in Lushoto, and this year she found out she'll get to see Hamilton this summer.










These two...someday they'll get their own post. 


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Friday Night Dinner



Usually we buy barbecued ribs from our friend Frank on Friday nights, because they are awesome and who wants to cook on Friday nights?

But this week Frank wasn't cooking, and at 5:00 I lay there on the couch, thinking through my options. More than one of my children asked, What's for dinner, Mom? To which my gracious and loving response was, Food. 

Options at 5:00 on a Friday evening are limited. We could order pizza, but they can never find our house which means we have to meet them somewhere, and that's even if they remember our order in the first place. We could go to that street-food place that sells life-changingly good chicken, but even though it's only a couple of miles away, it's not good enough to battle 45 minutes of traffic and another half hour of waiting for it.

I sighed and got up to stare into the refrigerator for inspiration. But I shop on Saturdays and so there wasn't much much inspiration to be found. I remembered that my house helper had left a large pot of peeled tomatoes on the stove. Okay, I guess we're having spaghetti. 

So I started chopping up onions and throwing in spices, having done this so many bazillions of times that it's been years since I've used a recipe. Oh, and butter. If you didn't know that butter is the key to amazing spaghetti sauce, then I've just revolutionized your life. You're welcome.

I went to the pantry to get the pasta, but then I realized.....no pasta. Which is impossible because I always have pasta. Always. I even checked under the shelves, thinking that maybe it must have fallen back there.

I slumped down onto a dining room chair, despairing of life itself. I could make pizza, but it would take too long for the dough to rise. Gil offered to run to a store and go buy pasta. But I weighed my options. I would rather go out and look for pasta than stay home with the four hungry children. I think I can find it in a nearby duka, I said. I could use a walk anyway.

I took my shorts off and put my skirt back on and put the water to boil on the stove. I walked out our heavy metal gate, and up the rocky path to the main road where I met a mass of Friday-evening humanity. Women--and girls--with babies tied to their backs. Children in uniforms walking home from school. Men in long white shirts leaving the mosque.

I walked along the side of the busy road, dodging motorcycles and bikes, scanning the tiny shops for the ones that sell food. I passed the guys who fix our flat tires and a shop that sells fifty pound bags of rice. I stopped at one duka that looked promising, but they only had soap and bottles of oil and soda. No pasta.

I passed enormous piles of pineapples for sale, gradually fermenting in the humid air. If I hadn't already bought three yesterday I would have picked up a few more. At fifty cents each this time of year, we do our duty in supporting the pineapple economy.

I peered hopefully into another tiny shop, but saw only notebooks and pencils. I almost moved on when my eye caught something in the corner--neatly stacked packages of spaghetti noodles. But I played it cool, not wanting to get my hopes up. Can I see the spaghetti? I asked the teenager manning the shop. He handed me one, and I inspected it carefully for bugs. Thankfully, it passed the test. I was back home a few minutes later, just as the water had started boiling.

Someday, I'm going to be really thankful to live in a place again where I can order pizza on a Friday night. But I imagine there's a part of me that will still look back wistfully on a night like this one.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Hot Sweaty Christmas Nostalgia

It's always hot in December, but this year, Dar es Salaam tried to kill us.

It's not supposed to feel like this until February! I grumbled into the sauna-like air. The whole point of a sauna is how good you feel when you come out of it. But Dar es Salaam is like one of those nasty villains in a Marvel movie who throws you in and locks the door. Now, go bake some Christmas cookies in there! she shrieks in that high-pitched monster cackle. And see if that doesn't turn you into the Grinch!  

Christmas is all about nostalgia, isn't it? Fueled by Hallmark movies and Thomas Kinkade paintings and everyone's perfect Instagram pictures. Crackling fires and children in sleeper pajamas and sparkling lights. You can say all you want that Christmas is about the Incarnation or the spirit of giving or blah blah blah, but actually, it doesn't "feel" like Christmas unless you get the nostalgia part right. Which is why Christmas is usually the hardest time of the year for Americans living overseas.

But then this funny thing happens once enough time goes by. You do the same thing enough times, even if you hate it, and one day you find your own form of nostalgia. The plastic tree held together by zip ties, the bizarre shopping excursions that include haggling over used shoes in an open-air market, the cans of Root Beer that appear in Christmas stockings. Suddenly you can't imagine Christmas without those things.

At our mission Christmas party this year, the theme of the gift exchange was food items that we usually wouldn't buy because they are too expensive here. So we cheered and laughed and fought over packages filled with tortilla chips and nacho cheese, s'mores ingredients, and--the most popular--a homemade cheesecake. Our family walked away with the package of bacon, and it was awesome.

We made gingerbread houses and took our worker's family to the water park; we made seven kinds of cookies that had to be kept in the freezer so they wouldn't melt. We went to the movie theater and saw "The Grinch," but my favorite part of the movie was the air conditioning. We had crepes and strawberries on Christmas morning, because strawberries are hard to come by. Gil gave me an orange-chocolate bar for Christmas, and I gave him a bag of Hershey's caramel kisses that were on sale (since normally they would have been twelve dollars). But our main gift to each other was running the air conditioner in the living room for the week before Christmas, because air conditioning is the Superhero against that heat villain.

It's never going to look like a Hallmark Christmas movie, but it's nostalgic just the same.
















Wednesday, January 9, 2019

13, 11, 9, 7

Josiah calls me into his room and points out a mass of mutilated millipede in the corner.

"I killed it," he says proudly.

"Um, great?" I say, as I watch millipede juice seep into the wood floor. "How did you kill it?"

"With the hammer," he says matter-of-factly.

"With the hammer?" I sputter.

"Yeah, I went and got it from the storeroom. And don't worry, Mom. I washed it off afterwards."

This is the kid who used to scream as if a velociraptor was in the bathtub when he saw an ant floating around in there. So I guess this is a step in the right direction. Um, congratulations, Josiah, on your first kill. As Aslan told Peter after he took down the Wolf, Never forget to wipe your sword. No problem; Josiah's already got that part covered.

Parenting is all about baby steps, People. Can I get an Amen? Baby steps.

I sure like these kids a whole lot. Here they are at ages 13, 11, 9, and 7.