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

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Living in Saturday

We don't talk much about Saturday. Friday, yes, because now, looking back two thousand years, we know that Friday was Good. But on that original Friday, they didn't yet know that. All they knew was the horror, the trauma, the beatings, the blood. And Saturday, all they knew was hopelessness and despair. All their dreams nailed down in a torturous crucifixion. Their closest friend, their mentor, their Lord--the one who had calmed the seas and winked at small children--condemned, humiliated, despised.

And they figured they were next. So they spent Saturday in hiding. Hunkered down, the windows closed, in shock. This was not how it was supposed to be. The end was supposed to be a kingdom--power, praise, honor! And they would be right by his side, the conquering hero, leading the people, soaking in the praise by association. But in one horrifying Friday, all of that was decimated. What went wrong? Is God angry with us? How could we have been so misled? This is not how it was supposed to be. 

We know better now. We know what's coming on Sunday, so we don't think much about Saturday. Yet, in a very real sense, we live in that Saturday. 

Perhaps this year more than ever, the world is faced with the reality of that Saturday. There's always been suffering, poverty, war, disease. But in my generation of relatively prosperous Americans, there's never been a time in our lives when we corporately have felt more powerless, more isolated, more out of control. Here we are, on a planet that's an infinitesimal speck in a universe of mind-blowing proportions. Yet seemingly immovable cultures and institutions are cut off at the knees by an even more infinitesimal speck that lurks unseen by all of us. We are very, very small, aren't we? The breath that keeps us alive for another few seconds is not something to be trifled with. We are not as strong as we think we are.

Resurrection, restoration, redemption came on that Sunday. Life was restored. Death was conquered. The world was never the same again. Yet as miraculous as the Resurrection was, it was just the deposit. The down payment for That Day--not yet come--when all things will be made new.

Until then, we still live in Saturday. The earth groans under the weight of war and hatred and injustice. Our frail bodies collapse from a microscopic enemy. We are driven to our knees with the tangible reminder that this is not heaven.

Yet one thing makes us different from those who hid away on that dark, hopeless Saturday. Yes, like them, we grieve, we anguish, we fear. But we have hope. That's the difference. We grieve, but with confident expectation of what's coming. We are on our knees, but we look up. If God could take the worst day in history and use it for our salvation, can He not redeem all the other hard things? The tomb was empty on Sunday. One day, ours will be too.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (Gil Medina)

Monday, April 6, 2020

I Don't Deserve Your Sympathy

Leaving Tanzania suddenly was probably the most stressful experience of my life. Selling everything in our house, trying to get Johnny's visa processed, having flights and airports closing around us, and worrying about all the people and responsibilities we would be leaving behind--all in a period of a few days--just about broke me. There were times when I found myself shaking uncontrollably or simply immobilized by the inability to think clearly.

But there were moments during that week--and even more so now that it's over--when I am overwhelmed with how much privilege was connected to this sudden departure.

Yes, my stomach was in knots. But never once did I worry that my family wouldn't have enough to eat. Yes, there was tremendous grief in being given a mandate to leave. But never did I feel my life was in danger. Yes, the trip probably exposed us to the virus. But I knew we were headed to a country with high quality health care. Yes, it was hard to find open flights. But I could afford to buy tickets on those flights. Yes, the trip was exhausting. But we had in-flight entertainment and a night at an airport hotel. Yes, I was forced to leave my home and return to a place that doesn't feel like home. But I had a passport to let me in.

In contrast, consider India. When the government put the country on lockdown last week, stalling all public transportation, hundreds of thousands of migrants started walking back to their home villages over one hundred miles away. People who scratch out a living of five dollars a day, walking. No money, no food for their journey. Sleeping outdoors. Many of them with children.

Yes, "shelter in place" isn't much fun. Like the rest of America, Gil and I are struggling with our kids' online learning while trying to do our own work. Our kids are climbing the walls. We are bored. We've been on quarantine so it's been a challenge to figure out how to get more milk or find a protractor so that Josiah can do his math. Yet again--I have no worries of going hungry. Zero worries. Sure, we are 8 people sharing three bedrooms, but my parents' house has 24 hour electricity and running water. Friends have brought us homemade pizza and root beer and ice cream, and a protractor for Josiah.

In contrast, I think of Uganda, also on lockdown. I think of families with 10 people sharing one room. Not one bedroom, one room. Little to no electricity. Their daily water supply costs a quarter of their daily wages--yet now there are no daily wages. We stress about boredom; they wonder about survival.

Yes, Gil and I are worried about the future. In three months, we will be unemployed. We've been applying for jobs at Christian schools, yet no one is confident of enrollment for next year, no one even knows when schools will open again, so everyone is reluctant to hire. Our future--where we will live, what we will do--is a big black hole of unknowns. Yet again--I have zero worries about going hungry. I have zero worries about ending up on the street.

In contrast, I think of how the tourism industry in Tanzania has come to a screeching halt, leaving hundreds of thousands without jobs. I think of the names and faces of Tanzanians I know--friends I have shared life with--who are now jobless due to so many foreigners leaving the country. But unlike Americans, they can't apply for unemployment benefits. Or even welfare. Or even food stamps.

I don't deserve your sympathy. They do.

I'm not saying that we didn't need your prayers or concern, because what we went through was really hard. I'm not trying to minimize my grief. The trauma my family experienced in being yanked from our home is very real. The anxiety about our future is tangible. I am grieving, and going through all the stages right now--denial, guilt, anger. I'm not trying to minimize the hardship of millions of Americans who have lost jobs, who are facing uncertain futures. I'm not saying that we shouldn't mourn the loss of the thousands of Americans who have died in this crisis.

But I do think that there is room for gratitude in my grief. Enduring a pandemic as a citizen of the richest country in the world--as difficult as it is--is still filled with privilege. My kids get to continue school. My country's health care system is strong. My family has several safety nets in place if we continue to be jobless. Sure, it might not be our first choice--living with extended family, public school...but we won't starve. That is a privilege.

Grief is healthy, so I'm not trying to squelch it. My losses are real. But choosing to find gratitude alongside the grief keeps me from spiraling into self-pity or despair. I could question why so much has been taken from me. Or I could question why I have still been allowed so much. The contrast makes all the difference.

Johnny visiting the cockpit of our last flight to California

Monday, March 30, 2020

Let Me Be Singing When the Evening Comes

It started as just dots on the map. Yes, there was a virus. Yes, it was spreading. But it was far away from us. And was it really a big deal? Ten years ago during the swine flu pandemic, our mission doctor had instructed our team on what could happen. Twenty percent sick, two percent dying.... I was nervous. We were in the States in 2010 and I bought masks and rubber gloves and brought them with me back to Tanzania. We even got a few swine flu cases in Tanzania. I stocked up on food. Then....nothing happened. So why would Corona be any different?

At the beginning of March, there were no confirmed cases in Tanzania. Among ourselves, we predicted it had already come. Why should we worry? East Africans are used to dealing with a variety of diseases. Last year there was a Dengue Fever outbreak in Dar es Salaam that was a lot worse than a respiratory illness. While Americans were clearing shelves of toilet paper, life was proceeding as normal for us in East Africa.

March 6
The first impact was felt in our community when a major missions conference that was planned for the end of March was cancelled in Slovenia (next to Italy). A number of our teachers were planning on attending and we were all shocked to hear of the cancellation. Really? Is this thing really that big of a deal? Go to Europe during spring break anyway, I urged my teachers. Why not? It's just a flu virus.

March 9
We received notice that an ACSI teacher's conference, also scheduled during spring break, was cancelled in Rwanda. Several other teachers were planning on going to that one, so now we had more disappointment throughout our community. And disbelief. What? There weren't even any confirmed cases in Rwanda!

Meanwhile, we started getting worried about our own upcoming mission conference. Ours was to be held in South Africa at the end of March, and was something we had been looking forward to for months. Our family had planned to spend a week in Cape Town after the conference--one of our "bucket list" locations. We had booked an Airbnb with a view of Table Mountain. We were going to visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned, and see the South African penguins. Maybe even do a shark dive. Surely our conference wouldn't be cancelled....right?

March 12
Wrong. Even though just a couple of days prior, our leadership had assured us that the conference would go on as planned, we started to realize that things were changing very quickly. March 12 was the day we got notice that our trip had too been cancelled. We were deeply disappointed. It was the first day that I started to personally feel the effects of the pandemic.

There were still no confirmed cases in Tanzania, and no travel restrictions. We had hope that the virus wouldn't take hold in hot countries. Or that maybe it was already present and circulating and wasn't really causing any problems. But we were reading the news, and the other HOPAC principals and I had a couple of meetings with our tech guy to discuss what distance learning would look like if we needed to go that route. But that still seemed far away. And those teachers who wanted to go to Europe over spring break? Sure, we said, you can still go.

Friday, March 13
The school leadership team met in the morning. The following week was to be our annual Service Emphasis Week, the greatly anticipated week when we send all of our students out into the community on service projects. Is it still wise for us to do this? we asked each other. We debated back and forth. We consulted with a couple of contacts that had expert information. Why not? we decided. There still aren't any restrictions in Tanzania. It should be fine.

That afternoon, we had the all-school assembly to launch Service Emphasis Week. We crammed all 500 students and staff into the performing arts building. So much for social distancing! we joked.

Saturday, March 14
Just in case, I decided to start stocking up. During my usual Saturday grocery shopping, I bought twice as much as usual. Just in case. I made sure our outside water tank had been filled up. Just in case. 

Sunday, March 15
Everything changed.

I don't usually check my phone during church, but on this Sunday morning, I just happened to. We attend church that meets on the HOPAC campus, and the director had sent me a message asking if I could come to his office immediately. Alarmed, I quickly ran out to meet him and the other principals. We had been advised from an important source that we should cancel Service Emphasis Week--set to start the next day.

It seemed like such a massive decision. This was an event that had taken all year to prepare for. Once again, I was in disbelief. What is happening? Our director sent out a message to the community--Service Emphasis Week was cancelled.

My kids were in shock, Lily especially. She stared sadly at her neatly prepared paper plates and cotton balls. But what about the rainbow craft I made for the preschool kids? It is all ready to go. Now I won't be able to use it. She loves Service Emphasis Week. Maybe we'll do it in June, I assured her. When this is all over, we can do it at the end of the school year. 

I received text messages from parents all day. Has Service Emphasis Week really been cancelled? they asked. Yes. Yes. Yes.

I went back to the grocery store and filled my cart again.

Monday, March 16
The air hung hot and low that day, one of the most humid of the year. The air was suffocating, and I felt like I couldn't breathe. I walked down the hall of the eerily quiet and empty primary school building, mourning the silence. This campus is supposed to be full of children, I thought. They are supposed to be getting on buses to go out and serve, and buses are supposed to be arriving with children from other schools, excited to be visiting our beautiful campus. What is happening?

My teachers and I met together, all of us in shock. Get ready for the possibility of distance learning, I told them. We don't know if school will close, but we should be ready for it if it does. We discussed what that would look like, what hurdles we would need to face.

That afternoon, I took Johnny to the US embassy. We had been working on his US citizenship for two years, and there had finally been some movement on it. I was confident that it would be completed by the time we left Tanzania in June. But meanwhile, just in case, we had decided to get his temporary US visa renewed. So I had made an appointment to at the embassy to do that.

I was at the little photo shop at Shopper's Plaza, getting passport pictures taken, when I got the text message: The first Corona case had been confirmed in Tanzania. I looked up, wide eyed, at the elderly Indian man behind the counter. Did you see this? I asked. The first case! He stared at me blankly, unimpressed.

The sun still shone, the air still pressed down around me, people went about their business. But it felt as if something had shifted in my world.

I got the temporary visa approved. The next day, the embassy shut down for the week.

Tuesday, March 17
The Tanzanian government declared all schools would close for a month. The Canadian Prime Minister made a public announcement encouraging all Canadians who were abroad to return home. What is happening? I quickly texted my Canadian friends. What does this mean? Why would he say you need to go home? Why would someone leave a country with a little bit of Corona and go back to another country with more Corona? Why would that make sense?

But borders and airports were starting to close.

Wednesday, March 18
My teachers and I met with our tech guy to prepare for distance learning. My staff kicked it into high gear; I was incredibly proud of them. For two straight days, the photocopy machines never got a break. We sent out emails to parents, giving instructions on using Google Classroom. We instructed them to come to school on Friday morning to pick up their child's school books and packets of work. We asked parents to give us their kids' library book requests. I helped to fill those orders, selecting books that I thought kids would like to read.

My best friend and I talked on the phone. What if we need to leave? she asked. That's impossible, I said. Why would we need to leave? Corona is everywhere. What would be the point of leaving? But the seed of doubt was planted. What if we don't get a choice?

Thursday, March 19
I spent all day at school, helping my staff get ready for distance learning. Throughout the day, I heard reports of some missionaries leaving, or moving up their leaving dates. My anxiety level went up, but still, leaving was not even remotely on the table for me.

Around 4:00, one of my staff members urgently said he needed to talk to me. His mission had just contacted him. His family had been told to leave the country as soon as possible. It was a mandate. For the first time, I started crying. I could see what was coming.

As soon as I got home, I told Gil the news. More specifically, I dragged him into the bedroom, shut the door, and started weeping. What if they make us leave? 

Grief crashed down on me. I cried and wailed harder than I can ever remember. We can't leave, not now. Not like this. What about all those books I've read about healthy transitions? What about the importance of closure? What about all the places we still needed to visit, all the people we needed to meet with? What about finishing well? What about taking Johnny back to visit his orphanage in Mwanza? What about all the things I still need to do for HOPAC?

No. No. No. We can't leave before June. We cannot. I cannot accept this. I will not. But at dinner that night, we told the kids: Guys, we might need to leave early. We don't know when. Maybe next week. Maybe next month. But you just need to be prepared that it could happen.

That night, conversations zoomed around our mission team and leadership. Multiple questions. Multiple what if scenarios. My adrenaline was pumping and I couldn't sleep. The United States government issued the Global Level 4 Travel Advisory. At 11:30 pm, we received the call from our mission leadership: Staff in Tanzania need to leave as soon as possible. The decision was made for a number of reasons, and we trust our leaders. But I was devastated.

We got online to book tickets. Many airlines had already cancelled flights, and those that remained were filling up quickly. We booked tickets with Emirates Airlines through Dubai for Tuesday night. We made it to bed at 2 am.

My emotions were screaming. This cannot be happening! Many of our missionary friends were going through the same thing, and it was sudden and traumatic for all of us. But most knew they would be able to return to Tanzania when this was over. For us, since we were already planning to leave in three months, we knew it meant we had to prepare as if this would be a permanent departure.

That meant I had four days. Four days to pack twelve boxes, sell everything else in my house, and leave behind a life of sixteen years.

Friday, March 20
I woke up after 4 hours, surprised I had been able to sleep at all. I got to HOPAC early. The plan had been that I would supervise the pick-up time of students' materials. But now I had a million other things to do. My superstar staff stepped in and organized the pick-ups, while I frantically organized my office and made sure I had all of my files uploaded to Google Drive so that I could work remotely. Many staff stopped by, hearing our news, and tears flowed freely by everyone. We threw social distancing to the wind, hugged and wept together. I brought my kids to school, encouraging them to say as many goodbyes as possible--not knowing if we would be back before the end of the school year.

In addition to packing and selling everything, we had a few other challenges to overcome--the main one being that Johnny's citizenship process had to be completed in Tanzania. Though we had the temporary visa, if there was any way we could complete his citizenship before we left, we wanted to do so. So Friday afternoon, I took Johnny for a medical appointment required by the embassy. I sat with him while he screamed getting his required vaccinations, and we stopped and got cotton candy afterwards.

By the time I got home, it was about 5:00 pm. Much to my surprise, the house was full of people. We had quickly posted our furniture on Facebook and word traveled quickly. Gil and the girls were busy selling things. This was too much for me. We had decided to leave only about 16 hours ago, and I hadn't had any time to get anything in our house sorted or organized. People were opening my kitchen cupboards and asking to buy things. I freaked out. Nope, not gonna happen. We sold some furniture but told everyone to come back Sunday afternoon if they wanted to buy anything else. Even still, I later asked Grace where our bath mats had disappeared to. Oh, I think the lady we sold the bed to took those, she said.

From that day on, I ran on pure adrenaline.

Saturday, March 21
I became a robot. Do the next thing. Do the next thing. Do the next thing. It was often hard to decide which "next thing" to do when there were a million options. The closets and cupboards vomited their contents onto every available surface. Sort, pack, throw away. Do I keep this? Is there room for this? There was an underlying anxiety that I was going to forget something important, throw away something I would regret. But no time to overthink it. Just keep going.

Friends stopped by to say goodbye, a steady stream. All of us shell shocked, all of us choking out last sentiments, gratefulness, prayers. Not knowing when we would see each other again. The hardest for me were Tanzanian friends and co-workers. How could I look them in the eye? How could I not be ashamed, not feel like I was abandoning them? How could they not be hurt that I was now fleeing the country that had so graciously given me a home for 16 years?

Esta came by with her new baby born a month ago, named Grace. She had worked for us for 13 years--all of my Grace's life. She had been on maternity leave so I hadn't seen her for several weeks. We wept together, worried together about what would happen to her now.

Meanwhile Gil took off on other frantic errands. Took Grace to the orthodontist to get her braces removed and retainer fitted. Drove to the UPS at the airport to get some medical equipment cleared that had been stuck in customs. Drove back to the dentist's office to pick up Grace's retainer. Josiah was with them and was spontaneously invited to spend one last time with his best friends. Arranged for an Uber to pick him up.

Kids asked what they could eat for lunch. Whatever you can find, I told them. Wow, Mom has never said that before. Dumped meat from the freezer into the crock pot. Asked a friend to bring me a cup of soy sauce and dumped that in too.

I had no appetite. I had to consciously remind myself to drink, to eat, to breathe.

Sunday, March 22
As a family we worked to get the house organized for the sale that afternoon. Many came. It was much easier to sell things to friends than the strangers. Giving things away or selling for good prices was a way I could express the love and appreciation I didn't have time to give in other ways.

The landlord came by, who has been so good to us for the 10 years we have lived in that house. We arranged for one of my HOPAC staff members and his family to stay in the house until our lease was up. He would take care of things and sell off our remaining furniture after we left.

I sold the dishes. I ran out to buy chicken, rice, and beans--our version of take-out.

That evening, frantic messages started appearing on our phones. Emirates Air was shutting down all flights by Tuesday. We were leaving on Tuesday. What did this mean? The final message we received before sleeping said that they would still keep some flights going. Okay then. We should be okay.

Monday, March 23
Gil left early with Johnny for the embassy, hoping to expedite his citizenship. He was gone most of the day. I continued to sift, sort, pack, sell. We dumped everything on the front porch that we didn't want. I started giving visitors a bag and telling them to fill it up and take it away. We sold the car.

Around mid-day we got the message: Emirates would definitively not be flying after Tuesday. That meant we could get to Dubai on our first leg, but the second leg to the US would be cancelled. We received advice that we should do it anyway, and then figure out a plan once we were in Dubai.

That was the first time I started panicking. Figure out a plan once we were in Dubai? What did that mean? I started envisioning needing to take an evacuation flight. I realized we would probably need to travel without any luggage--to leave it all in Tanzania and hope to get it later. Considering I already was getting rid of 95% of my possessions and everything in our luggage was really important to us, that thought sent me into a tailspin.

A couple of hours later, I got word that all Emirates flights were cancelled, even the one to Dubai. Gil finally came home from the embassy. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted and not thinking clearly any longer. Somehow we managed to get back online and find tickets on Qatar Airlines for Wednesday. The prices had doubled, but we got tickets--the last six tickets available on that flight. Still, I was on edge. Which airport was going to close next?

Tuesday, March 24
Weirdly, we got emails from Emirates, telling us to check into our flight. We called to make sure the flight was really cancelled (it was), but obviously their website wasn't up to speed. Things were changing so quickly that even the internet couldn't keep up.

I breathed more on Tuesday. Having the extra day was a blessing, even though I was still anxious about whether we would actually leave. We visited close friends and let the kids have a decent goodbye. We cleaned up the house better so that it didn't look quite as much like a tornado had gone through it. We found a wonderful home for Snoopy, our Jack Russell Terrier.

We went out to dinner at Ramada. We were pretty much the only people in the hotel other than the employees.

Wednesday, March 25
Our flight was scheduled to leave at 5:30 pm. We decided to leave for the airport at 11 in the morning even though it was only an hour drive. We didn't want to take any chances.

We got word that Johnny's medical report had come through. So on the way to the airport, we stopped at the embassy to make one last ditch effort for his citizenship visa. We didn't get it. But by this point we had many, many people praying we could enter the US.

We needed those prayers. People on temporary visas aren't supposed to be entering the US right now, so when we went to check in, the airline didn't want to let us travel. The check-in clerk took Johnny's passport to his supervisor. We all held our breath.

Then the most extraordinary thing happened. At this exact moment, the exact person with the authority to convince the officials to allow us to leave "just happened" to be standing in line right behind us. She intervened on our behalf, and we got through.

Thursday, March 26
Five hours to Qatar. 95% of the flight was non-African, which I've never witnessed before on a flight leaving Africa. Over half of the passengers wearing masks. Eight hour layover in an airport hotel. Thirteen hours to JFK airport in New York. We zoomed through US immigration with zero issues.

JFK was a ghost town. Almost every store shuttered. Hardly any people anywhere. Silence, except for the far off clicks of roller bags down the empty hallways.

We collected our bags and rushed to the Alaska Airlines desk, only to realize that all Alaska Airlines flights had just been cancelled. They tried to help. There's an American Airlines flight leaving in just over an hour. You could take that one, but Qatar would need to book it for you. 

So we rushed back to the Qatar desk. I noticed dozens of Arabs in line, waiting to check in. Interesting. Apparently Americans aren't the only ones repatriating. Qatar hadn't opened their ticketing desk yet, so after some difficulty with our Tanzanian SIM cards, we managed to figure out a way to call them. The agent told me, Start walking towards the American Airlines desk. With him on the phone, we dragged our 12 pieces of luggage over, explaining to that airline what we were trying to do. The 6:00 flight was just about ready to close. One minute....two minutes.... It's booked! the Qatar agent on the phone told me. I see it! the American Airlines agent at the desk exclaimed. Bags checked, rush through security, run across the empty airport, and board the plane.

Five hours later, we arrived in another empty airport in San Francisco. My parents were there to pick us up. And right now I am writing this in my childhood bedroom. Yes, this is "home." Sort of. But it doesn't feel that way. It feels more like I've been ripped from my home. It feels like I've betrayed my home.

I am relieved. I am grateful. The stress has drained out of me; everything is okay. Except, I'm not really okay. This is all wrong. I am not supposed to be here. Today I was supposed to be in South Africa for our conference. I was supposed to be experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime two weeks of family memories with some of our best friends in the world. Josiah was supposed to have his last basketball tournament last weekend with the friends he's had since first grade, and Gil coaching them. Grace was supposed to perform as Annie in the school musical in April. Lily was supposed to have her fifth grade graduation. Gil was supposed to be organizing the Bible School graduation. I was supposed to finish strong this school year, with everything carefully prepared for the next principal.

And I was supposed to be able to say a proper good-bye to those 150 precious little souls that have been my life for the past three years.

Instead, I feel like I've been thrown into some sort of alternate reality.

I can't help but still cling to hope. Maybe this thing will pass faster than the experts think it will. Maybe in Tanzania the virus won't be a big deal. Maybe schools and airports and borders will open soon, and we'll be able to return to Dar es Salaam and finish what we started. Maybe. Maybe. Oh God, please, let it be so.

Every day last week, these lyrics kept running through my head. They still are.
Whatever may pass or whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes.

Still trying to sing. Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.

Zanzibar Island (Gil Medina)