Thank You Baltimore

When I was six years old, I went to Baltimore for the first time. I have three memories from that bit of time. One, my family and I went to some fancy seafood restaurant near the harbor and I ate crab with the use of a hammer for my first time ever. Being encouraged to smash things at the dinner table is just about the best thing that can happen to a six year old, so of course I loved that. Two, we fed ducks and geese at a pond near our motel the day before we flew to move to the Azores. This was something we’d often done at my home before we began our moving process, so this was something familiar and special to me. Three, we walked along the harbor and through a shopping center and I found myself mesmerized by the employees at a fudge shop fittingly called “The Fudgery”. These folks were singing, tossing that fudge around, dancing, and providing a performance that just overall fascinated me. This little blonde kid with a bowl cut (me) was standing in front of the fudge case with a beaming smile. Their smiles, their laughter, their singing, the joy, and the presence of delicious fudge that I desperately wanted my parents to get for me…Well, as a six year old these were all of the best things in life. At the time I didn’t notice this fact, but in memory, these employees were mostly black. At the time, this was irrelevant to me. Now I can’t stop wondering what their lives are like there in Baltimore. Were they affected by these riots? Were they affected by police brutality? (In the last five years there have been 100 court judgments or settlements awarded to victims of police brutality and civil rights violations. And those are just the cases that got that far.) Are they still bringing people joy like they brought me? Is life and society bringing them joy?

Fast forward about five years later. I live in Virginia at this time. My family sometimes takes day trips up to D.C. and Baltimore. One day, we visit Baltimore and go by The Fudgery again. I loved it just as much as before. For my family, it was just a momentary pause. I don’t know if they even remember it. But I remember that brief moment we stopped by. It was a chance for me to remember an earlier joy I’d had five years ago. It was a chance to participate in an atmosphere of joy currently there before me. I remember one man in particular who worked there. He was black, singing as he flipped the fudge with his little scraper thing (I’m kind of unaware of fudge tool terminology), and smiling a big smile full of shiny white teeth. He had short dreads. He was a pretty young adult. I thought, “That’s a really cool guy”. Quickly, we were off to visit a science museum or something. But I’d had my moment. I’d gotten to see my favorite place.

Fast forward ten years. I now live in Seattle, WA. I’m watching racial tensions ignite across our country and praying for Baltimore as it experiences troubles I could never dream of. I’m praying for African Americans who feel unheard and utterly frustrated with the system of our society. I’m praying for the police and public officials in Baltimore, that they might be given wisdom, peace, and a spirit of reconciliation. I’m praying for business owners and the population of Baltimore, watching as conflict has descended on their home. But most of all, I’m praying for those people who made me smile as a six year old boy. I’m praying for that young black man, now in his 30s or so I suppose, who impacted me as an eleven year old boy. I’m praying that he’s safe. That he’s been free from police brutality. That he’s a voice for reconciliation. That he’s still bringing joy and happiness to people and wearing that big, contagious smile.

Baltimore, and the greater black community of our nation, is experiencing a great struggle right now. Pray for them. Stand with them. Acknowledge the wrongs wherever you want, but, more than that, choose to see the rights being done. Choose to see the good in people and strengthen that. Rally around the voices of reconciliation. Support the efforts for progress. Hear people out. Bring peace, justice, and understanding. Pray for Baltimore. Pray for Maryland. Pray for our nation. Pray for that man from The Fudgery with that beaming smile. I want you to know there’s light in the midst of these bits of darkness. Light like those people unknowingly displayed in my life. Light that we can all choose to see, support, and be ourselves. Strengthen this light and the darkness will fade. And thank you Baltimore, for putting a little bit of that light into my life as an awestruck boy at a fudge factory.

If you appreciated the spirit of this post, feel free to share it yourself! I would love to see these words stand out as a positive note in the midst of all the negative media we consume.

This Is My Future

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Before I tell you anything more, you need to see this video that my ministry partner took of me in Kibera today. This video exemplifies so much of the joy and fun that I experienced with the youth and community leaders in Kenya today.

Let me tell you, today was my absolute favorite day in Kenya so far. Beyond that, it was one of the most joy-filled days of my life. It began simple enough. This morning I walked down Ngong Road (the street I live on) to join a friend for breakfast. Later I joined a bunch of other missionaries for a prayer luncheon sort of thing at a Chinese restaurant (American guy, Chinese restaurant, African locale. Awesome, right? Lol). Side note real quick: First off, fellowship over food is like my favorite thing about Christian it culture. I’ll always love food and fellowship. Haha. But even better than the food was the opportunity to see the diversity of God’s people serving in Kenya as foreigners. There were missionaries from across the globe: Hong Kong, South Korea, Brazil, England, Ireland, and the US. I love that. Honestly, until reading the book Kingdom without Borders a few years ago, I was of the typical naive understanding that most missionaries are white middle class Americans. But today, I got to see the diversity of God’s missionary body firsthand. I loved that. 

Now comes the part of my day that rocked my world. My ministry partner Jason and I went from the luncheon to a special event being held for youth at a school in the Kibera slum. We went there with our friend Patoh (his name is Patrick, but he goes by Patoh). One more quick side note: (sorry, there is just so much to tell you!) Patoh is one of the most fantastic men I have ever met. I will tell you more about him in a later blog post. But what you need to know right now is that he runs an organization called Spur Afrika. The organization gets its name from its purpose: to spur Afrika (Swahili spelling) into growth by empowering people as entrepreneurs, equipping leaders within communities, instilling moral lessons in children who have grown up in the slum without parents to guide them, teaching children and youth valuable skills and abilities, encouraging a culture of learning, and providing avenues for people to lift themselves out of poverty, among other things.

Anyways, this event with Patoh was the highlight of my day for sure. His organization was facilitating a part of the event in which teams from schools were competing in debates. The hope is to incentivize learning in public speaking, argumentation, and critical thinking. Other things going on in this event included dance offs and just plain fun dancing, soccer games, and volleyball games. During the afternoon, Patoh took me and Jason aside and introduced us to a few members of his team that we hadn’t met yet, Nikoh and Bob.

Talking to Patoh and Bob is part of what got me really excited. As many of you know, I have spent the past 3 years of my life studying Global Development at SPU. Today was my first chance in my life to really apply and utilize what I’ve learned and that excites me so much. From our conversation we decided on some various tasks that Jason and I might be working out alongside them and for them, helping them to increase the influence and growth of Spur Afrika. I told them some strategies that they could potentially use in microfinance (or savings action committees), in grant writing, and overall structure/strategy. The organization is still fairly young, so it seems that I might be able to really contribute a lot! I cannot even begin to explain how excited I am to be working with these guys. This work really will make a difference. With this, my presence here at this moment and my connection and contact with them even when I’m back in the US can help to actually empower people and provide opportunity in the midst of poverty. It is so fantastic to finally have opportunities to truly apply my education in development (before I’ve even graduated)!

In addition to this moment of realizing that I’m really stepping into my career and future in a way, I also got to dance with/in front of Kenyans, as you saw in the video above. This was so fun. Between speeches they would play some hip hop and students would come out and dance, sometimes having dance offs. Jason told Patoh and Bob that I love to dance (which yes, I do). As soon as he told them that, they were ushering me out, “Really? Go! Go dance! Go on!” Haha. So, I went on out and did what I could, in front of maybe two hundred Kenyans. No lie, it’s impossible to feel like an uncoordinated mzungu (white guy) when all these Kenyans are shouting and cheering. Besides that, even if I sucked I could just give the excuse, “Oh, yea, that’s just how everyone dances in my country.” Hahah. It was so funny, fun, and just overall fantastic. After that, some youth came up to me and taught me some Kenyan dancing and then asked me to teach them some mzungu dance moves, so I showed them the Spongebob and the Running Man. White enough, I think. Haha. The day was filled with so much laughter, dancing, and joy. I certainly hope heaven is something like that.

On our way back home through the slum, I couldn’t help but feel the beautiful energy of the life around us. Children dancing and playing in the streets, adults sharing conversation and laughter, food sizzling and bringing wonderful smells, the sun shining bright, and, just, the presence of life. Over the past few days, it has been hard at times as I’ve seen the degree of poverty and heard the stories of death, sickness, and despair facing so many in the slum of Kibera. I’ve wondered at points, “What can I even do in the face of such drastic, widespread, and systematic poverty? I’m here for a little over one month. Is there really anything that I can do for anyone?” Honestly, poverty, true poverty, is a hard thing to encounter. Guilt, despair, and overall sadness can take root if we let it. But today was a reminder that there is life in the midst of the suffering. There is joy in the midst of poverty. And there is light in the midst of darkness. It is not I who will make a difference anyways, it is God and his use of myself and the people here who desire to see real, holistic change take hold in Kibera for the impoverished of Kenya. The people like Patoh, Nikoh, Bob, Edu, and others will be the agents of change. And they will see a better Kibera. I am confident of it.

Today was beautiful. I cannot exaggerate how wonderful it was. This is my future. In days to come, both far and near, I will experience and share the love of Christ and many joys, sorrows, adventures, struggles, and more with the people of Africa. God will be with me through it all and I look forward to my future in this land. I wish I could share each moment I’ve experienced with all of you. Hopefully this blog does just that, at least to some extent.

Recognizing Brokenness

Today in my Issues In African and Asian Christianity class we spent some time reading about a pastor in Baghdad.  In our reading, the author took a moment to briefly describe the reality of the violence that this pastor had placed himself in the midst of, mentioning that one day on his way to his church the pastor walked past 60 bodies graphically hanging along the street. What struck me at this moment wasn’t that fact itself, but how I almost heard that and merely thought “Wow, that’s rough,” instead of feeling actual anguish; anguish over the brokenness of our world displayed in the reality that this pastor was experiencing around himself.

The lyrics of Hosanna immediately came to my mind when I considered this. It’s a song we sing in church all the time, but I don’t think we really always mean the lyrics. In the bridge we sing, “Break my heart for what breaks Yours.  Everything I am for Your Kingdom’s cause.” Do we really mean those words though? Do our hearts break at the injustice in the world? Why do we tolerate the brokenness? Why do we settle for “that’s just how the world is”, rather than being the change that we [should] wish to see in the world and refusing to accept the world as it is?  Why do we hear facts like “About 29,000 children under the age of five –  21 each minute – die every day, mainly from preventable causes. (UNICEF.org)”, and not respond with outrage that we as a society allow this to happen?  Why is the brokenness of the world not constantly, or even really occasionally, on our minds?

I’m not saying that we should all be mopey and depressed about how broken the world is, but I think reality should hit us, and it should hit hard.  We shouldn’t just be satisfied living life with our nice cars, big homes, clean running water, and monthly $10 donation to some random charity.  We should be praying earnestly, taking some kind of time out of our year for ministry outside of our home city, taking some kind of time for ministry in our cities, ministering to the ‘least of these’, living as Christ actually lived.  Sometimes I think much of our Church in America seems more like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, obsessed with a moral code and ‘righteous’ living, rather than like Christ himself, loving the marginalized and living humbly and embracing those who are suffering while walking with God in ways that reflect more of his positive actions than his negative ones (Do vs. Do Not).  We have an abundance of sympathy here in the US, but a real shortage of empathy.  When we see pain, we’re more likely to respond with “Wow, that’s a bummer,”  than we are to respond with, “Wow, that’s terrible.  Let me come alongside you and just be here for you in whatever way I can.  You’re actually worth some of my time.”

I’m not demanding that we all just pack up our stuff and leave for the most broken and violent regions of the world right now, ready to risk everything in order to display God’s love for people in the midst of violence and poverty (although some of us really should).  What I’m saying is that we should feel something for these people.  We should care.  The plights of the impoverished, the abused, the victims of violence, the trafficked, the homeless, the broken, the weary, and all those suffering should be addressed in our thoughts, in our prayers, in our giving, and in how we spend our time.  Christ did not come so that we could have happiness in our little bubbles of security and wealth (If you even make minimum wage then you’re richer than at least 80% of the world.  Think about that sometime.).  He didn’t come to establish a moral code (the Pharisees already had that covered).  He didn’t even come so we could just tell people about him and all share some kumbayas and joy.  He came to redeem the world back to himself and to change our lives radically.  The lives of the early Christians we find in Scripture were incredibly changed when they put their faith in Christ.  What if we actually began to care about the world as God does?  What if Christ’s love showed up in our time, our finances, our prayers, our churches, and even our daily attitudes and the most minuscule of actions?  What if the status of the world we live in really began to mean something to us?  I don’t think we could help but change it.

Even if we can’t regularly place ourselves among those suffering for whatever reason (Maybe you legitimately don’t have the time to volunteer regularly or something.  I get that.  I’ve been there.), we can at least make a difference in our every day actions.  For one thing, we can be active in intercessory prayer for those suffering.  In many places where God acts in Scripture it’s directly in relation to prayers (Exodus 3, Judges 3, and Acts 12 are just a few examples).  I don’t know why God allows us to have a direct impact on how and when he acts, but it seems that he does. For whatever reason, he seems to desire for us imperfect men and women to be part of the actions he takes in His perfect redemption of the world.  And beyond prayer, we should be living lives overall that serve as reflections of the grace and love that we’ve been able to experience thanks to Christ.  Next time you see that homeless person on the corner, invite em to dinner.  Next time you know someone struggling with finances while you’re doing pretty well yourself, anonymously help them out.  Maybe in the next year you could even dedicate some time to putting yourself in a distant city or nation in the service of God.  We can’t fix all of the brokenness of the world ourselves, but we can be unique parts in the story of God doing so.

I want to end with two passages from Scripture.  The first is one of exhortation to action.  The second is one of the hope that we can have in Christ’s redemption of the world.  As someone who currently studies poverty, injustice, and the overall brokenness of the world that needs fixed, the hope that God has given us for the happy ending is sometimes all that keeps me from just burying my head in the sand.

Isaiah 58:6-7,9-10
“6 Is not this the fast that I choose;
to loosen the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
…9 Then you shall call and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom shall be as the noonday.”

That’s what God wants from us more than all the worship, fasting, mega-churches, sermons, and tithing in the world.

Hosea 2:18-20
“…18 And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety.  19 And I will betroth you to me forever.  I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and mercy.  20 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness.  And you shall know the LORD.”

God promises to remove the pain of this world.  He promises that we’ll one day live in peace and justice and perfect intimacy with Him.  But if we do not fight the world’s current brokenness ourselves, we miss being part of God’s active redemption and renewal.  It has been said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.  Luckily for us though, we have a God who will act regardless of whether we do or not.  But still, I exhort you to be that change that you wish to see in the world, and to earnestly wish to see many things change.

Lord, break our hearts for what breaks yours.