Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas gifts, tangible and not

I'm setting this post to appear in the middle of the week like I did last time. There won't be an email reminder, but hopefully you'll see it on facebook and click the link. I feel like no matter how many words I type, no matter how many hours I spend in front of a screen, I'll never be fully able to explain what it's like to be here. There are too many moments when we're laughing so hard we forget what was funny in the first place, or we're so exhausted we don't even have the strength to change clothes before we climb into our sleeping bags. I wish I had the time to write out every moment and post it on here to remember forever, but that's not the way life works I suppose. I do my best and hope that the other memories won't fade too quickly.

Last Christmas was definitely one I'll never forget. I knew it would be hard to be away from home, but I didn't expect that it could be so beautiful as well. I found myself keeping track of what time certain events were taking place in Korea - the candlelight service at Jubilee should be starting now, JM should be handing out presents to the kids, the huge English service is in an hour. It's funny how I missed a Christmas I'd only had once almost as much as the one I've experienced all my life. I wonder who bought Min-Ho's present this year.

On Friday, our team led a Christmas celebration near the camp. We were expecting the program to be in the camp and to have three hundred people attending, but we ended up smashed into a tiny room in a pastor's house with a mix of people from all over the community. I'm learning to hold plans with open hands here; nothing is the way you thought it would be, and that's okay.

When we began, everyone was politely seated around the room, but moments later we were flooded by dusty children from the camp. Seeing them side-by-side with the freshly bathed kids from other parts of the community made them look even more colorless than ever. It hurt my heart but at the same time I rejoiced that they had come. The program was partly in Hindi (translated to English for us) and partly in English (translated to Hindi for everyone else). They sang a few worship songs in each language, and the kids climbed on us as if there were some kind of silent competition to touch the ceiling first. One of the women on our team gave a message about the meaning of Christmas, then the rest of us put on a little play about the birth of Jesus. Last year, I was in two different Christmas plays, and I guess they were practice for my huge role this year as Mary. Everyone in the room laughed when I turned around with a shawl shoved inside my punjabi; apparently I'm going to be the most hilarious pregnant women the world has ever seen. My shawl later became the newborn baby Jesus, which drew an equal roar of laughter from the audience. At least I can be certain everyone was entertained.

Christmas Eve, we separated into three groups and wandered the village singing Christmas carols. The first few houses we visited, we knocked to introduce ourselves before we started singing, but that tradition quickly faded. We found it far more entertaining to stand outside a house and sing as loudly as we could until someone took notice and came down to say hello. After our songs, we explained (through our faithful translator) the meaning of Christmas and why we were celebrating. We left some simple gifts with the children and headed to the next house. Our last stop was a sweet little day care in our village. I still had my nail polish in my bag, and the contrast between the responses was unbelievable. In the camp, the second I reach into my bag, I hear incessant "ma'am!"s rising up all around me, and the children literally smack each other to be the first to get painted. The children in the day care, however, were hesitant and shy; it wasn't until a few brave ones showed off their painted nails that the rest would come anywhere near us. By the time we left, they were displaying their splatters of color as if they had the most expensive manicures. It was precious.

Christmas morning certainly didn't feel like Christmas. We headed to the church we've been leading; it was the fullest I've seen the English service since we arrived. Our team gave testimonies, sang Christmas songs, and gave a message about the meaning of Christmas before heading to the village for lunch. We returned to the base and dispersed, reading, napping, praying, until the classroom was ready for our celebration.

We began our Christmas party by praying for this nation. We wrote Christmas cards to the people here and prayed that one day people would know the God who sent His son as a baby to show His love for us. It was quiet, reverent, and sweet, and I'm thankful we started our celebration focusing on something outside of ourselves.

After a delicious dinner, we returned to the classroom to open our presents from each other. Instead of buying cheap souvenirs for every other person on our sixteen-person team, we were instructed to give "intangibles" - gifts written out on slips of paper that represent what we would give to each other if we had no limits, financially or logistically. We read them all one by one, laughing at some and crying at others. Some of my favorites that were given to me include:
- a gift card for one free Indian child
- a classroom that folds up in my pocket that I can use to teach any child, anywhere
- unlimited hugs and hand-holding with a person (I'm hoping she meant a guy) who wants to hold hands with only me
- freedom for North Korea
- Brian (everyone here loves him as much as everyone at home)
- a puppy that never grows up
- the ability to always make kids listen to what I'm trying to teach
- a few schools in North Korea (that was a popular one for me... my friends know me well!)
- a library with endless books
- a lightsaber
Although I don't physically have any of those things, I love the fact that my friends know me well enough to give me gifts that make my heart so happy. And writing the intangibles for my friends was the most fun I've ever had Christmas shopping - no price limits, no pesky "does this actually exist?" getting in the way. I gave one friend the ability to feel rested by eating cookies, another unexpiring visas to every country, and another a Bible that transports you to whatever story you're reading. I've never been so excited to give people presents, presents that I had thought of specifically for them that I knew were exactly what they wanted. It beats the crap out of wondering whether they already had the movie I bought or if the sweater I picked would be insultingly large. Plus, it was all free! Please don't call me cheap if I start including intangibles in birthday cards; I'm a little obsessed with the idea of giving imagination as a gift.

After we finished sharing our gifts with each other, the leaders pulled out surprise gifts from our families. The room got silent as we unwrapped our presents, thinking about how we could have been at home with our families this year, but God had different plans. I got cards from my parents, sisters, and dogs, and a picture drawn by my precious nephew. I also got a ton of candy and games that I can play with the kids in the camp, and a bracelet that I tied around my ankle to remind me of home. It was sad and strange not being able to skype with my family on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day like I did last year, but it's wonderful knowing I'll get to see them in March instead of being nine months away from coming home.

I hope your celebration of Christmas was as beautiful as mine. Sure, December 25th may not actually be Christ's birthday, and maybe a lot of our traditions have been adapted from ancient pagan celebrations. But Christmas isn't about long lines at Wal-Mart or unending credit card debt; it's about remembering the day that God invaded earth and invited the people He so desperately loves to know Him personally, and that truth is the same no matter what country you celebrate in.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Not quite camping

I have (of course) a million things to tell you again, and I've got about four hours until I need to head back to base for dinner. Let's see how this goes!

This week was completely different from our mountain climbing excursion last week. We spent most our time down in the camp, which isn't a camp at all. "The camp" is our nickname for the slums, a name that refers to the tents people live in rather than their social status. These are the poorest of the poor, the ones society pretends don't exist, and the main focus of our days. I thought I knew what poverty was until I came here.

The people in the camp are so dirty, they almost look like ghosts. The children have matted hair, and the youngest ones don't wear pants. Many of the adults numb their pain with constant alcohol, but the children aren't yet old enough to realize how hopeless their situation truly is. The teenagers are starting to know; their eyes are starting to reflect the sadness that haunts the adults, but they haven't completely given up. It's like watching hope die, day by day.

Walking into the camp is so difficult to explain. It's dirtier than I thought a place could be; the children's bellies puff out in their shirts, and even the little ones have such calloused feet they can run through rocks and garbage without flinching. There's no sense of order; the children are all so desperate for love that they'll literally jump off rocks, hoping someone will take notice and catch them. They tug at anything that's hanging from you, a bag, jewelry, your hair, wanting something of yours to belong to them. Nail polish is like gold. Boys and girls alike flock to anyone with nail polish, the colors making a striking contrast to the dust and grime on their hands. I can't help but think of the little girl in the red coat - a splash of brightness on an innocent child caught in a desperately colorless situation.

There's no question that it's hard being there. I found myself wanting to "rescue" all the kids, take them home with me, wash their dirty bodies, clothe them in Disney Princesses and Spongebob, and send them to preschool. I want them to come home to fluffy beds and warm dinners; I want them to have shoes. I want them to know comfort the way American children do.

But it's an impossible paradox. They belong here; they belong in the arms of the mothers who gave birth to them, and they deserve to know their native culture. The solution to poverty isn't tearing every poor child away from his family and dropping him into an American home. The solution also can't be to throw money at the families who need it, because someone has to teach them what to do with that money so they don't land back in the camp when it runs out. It's much more complicated here, with castes choking the hope from these people's eyes. There's no quick fix to poverty, just as there's no immediate end to cancer or violence. The roots are too deep to tug out and expect the weed to be gone forever.

We'll spend the rest of our time while we're in the north working with people in the camp, and most of our time in the south will be spent loving and teaching street kids, children born to women in prostitution and often abandoned to raise themselves in the streets. If I'm going to feel any culture shock here, it won't be because the food is too spicy or the bathroom is a patch of grass; it will be when I'm holding a child who smells like she's never had a bath and wondering how our world can be considered "civilized" when a hungry, dirty child is utterly forgotten.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

It's like living in the Bible

I won't have internet again until next weekend, so I'm going to try to set this post to appear on the blog sometime in the middle of the week. If it doesn't work, I guess you'll have two posts to read at once! Lucky you!

First: one of the girls on my team emailed me some pictures! Here's a bit of the way life has been this past week:

Now, stories.

After two nights at the teacher's house, we packed up our things and headed to another village. As we set out, Anil told our team to pray that God would be faithful in giving us another place to stay with kind people who would feed us. Having seen God provide the previous few days, I was actually excited to see where we'd end up this time around.

We hiked for a few hours, getting lost once or twice and stopping once to eat some snacks since we we're sure the next time we'd have food. We rounded the side of a mountain and saw a huge village spread out in front of us; well, I suppose it wasn't huge, but it did have roads and a few little shops selling snacks, which we hadn't seen in days. We prayed for a place to stay, and the first house we came to offered us rooms. Every home you walk past in these villages will offer you chai; we had tea nearly twenty times in four days. As we sat in front of the house sipping our chai, about a dozen women gathered at the edge of the house to stare at the strangers. A few of them were holding babies, and if you've ever met me, you know I love to steal babies. I asked our translator if it would be okay for me to hold one, and he just laughed. He told me to go try, and as soon as I walked up to one of the women, she practically tossed her baby in my arms. Success! I went back to the benches where the rest of the team sat, proud of my accomplishment. The baby and I became best friends while he chewed on my scarf and sneezed in my face. Ah, love.

We dropped our things in the family's spare room and headed down to the main part of the village to make friends. As soon as we got to the bottom, our team stopped for some momos (basically mandu, only not even half as good), and our translator chatted with the men hanging around the shop. One of the men was a teacher, and he asked if we would like to visit his school in the morning. Schools seemed to be our thing, so we jumped at the chance. Since the last school had about twenty-five kids, we asked how many we should expect and prepare for, thinking it would be around the same number. Nope. This school had five hundred kids. Five hundred!

The teacher took us back to his house for chai, and it was one of the nicest houses we'd seen since we started our village hiking. They had a color tv and an indoor bathroom, and the cups they served our tea in looked quite expensive. The family offered to let us stay with them, but we had already agreed to stay with the other family, so we declined. On our way out, we met a few other people who seemed rather influential. Anil talked with them, then came back to tell us that he had just met the president of the village, and he would like for us to stay at his house. The house he led us to wasn't even finished yet; the president himself had never spent a night in it, but he was letting us stay there. They started preparing food while we went to gather our things from the other family's house; we sang worship songs the whole way.

In the morning, we met the teacher at the school and he let us play with the children. We pulled out our trusty balloons as we interacted with the youngest kids, and the rest of the school came from their classes to watch us. I asked if I could have a piece of chalk to draw a hopscotch board on the ground; the teacher had no idea what I was doing, but he let me draw. I demonstrated a few times while the kids stared in awe at a few chalk boxes on concrete; finally, a few of them were bold enough to try it themselves while the rest of the school crowded around the space. The teacher asked me if I knew of anything else to draw, but I couldn't think of anything else that didn't require other materials - can you think of anything else we might be able to do?

The school fed us lunch before we passed out Bibles and said goodbye to the kids. We grabbed our things and climbed on a bus back to Anil's house, where we spent the night singing worship songs around the fire. We walked through Anil's village the next morning, playing with kids and talking to people. It was what I imagined the disciples' lives to have been like.

I've been trying to follow Christ for about seven years now, and in that time, I've read the stories in the gospels probably hundreds of times. There's a part in Luke (it's also in Matthew, but I'm simplifying) where Jesus sends his disciples out to tell people about the Kingdom of God, and he instructs them on how they should travel. He tells them to enter a village and find the man of peace, and to stay with that man until they leave the village; he says that man will welcome them and feed them while they stay at his home. I'll admit, I usually skip over that passage when I'm reading. I can't imagine walking into Detroit and trying to find a "man of peace" to let me stay at his house for free and feed me the whole time I'm there. All the times I've read that passage, I skimmed it, thinking it could never apply to the world as it is today. One morning, as I sat on the edge of the mountain writing in my journal, I remembered having read something about visiting villages, and I flipped through the gospels to find it. When I came across Luke 10, I was shocked at how much those instructions fit exactly what we were doing. I don't think the Bible has ever felt as real to me as it did in that moment, and I'm so thankful for that hour I spent on the side of a mountain in the Himalayas. Sometimes Jesus feels a bit like a movie character, a historical figure that America distorts to fit its political agendas. In that moment, and so many moments since I've been here, Jesus felt like the Son of God, and I'm so very grateful.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What we've been up to, and thoughts on poverty

I honestly didn't know what to expect from outreach. I guess when I left, I kind of assumed that it would be a continuation of lecture phase; we'd be learning more about God and learning how to interact with the world in a Godly way. Turns out outreach is more about everyone else than it is about me. Life is just that way, I think.

This past week, we were thrown head-first into a missionary lifestyle. The team I met and ministered with in Thailand stayed at a guesthouse and did things like teaching English at a coffee shop and having a carnival in the slums. Since that was my only frame of reference for outreach, I expected things to be the same for us. Not so, my friends, not so.

Our team of sixteen divided into two teams of eight, which is significantly more manageable when traveling internationally. Each team was partnered with a pair of nationals to help us navigate the area and communicate with people in the villages we visited. We said goodbye to the other team and hopped on a bus - a bus of death. The roads here are only really wide enough for a single car, and they wind around the sides of the mountains so much that just drawing a picture of the road would likely give you motion sickness. Whenever we encountered another vehicle on the road, our bus would slam on its brakes and dive into the ditch so the other driver could fit around us. I'm shocked that I've yet to experience a car accident here.

After a few hours on the bus, our driver pulled over next to a tiny shack and our translator told us we had arrived. There was nothing around us except that little shack and a few dozen houseflies, but we unloaded the van and watched the bus pull away. Our leader walked us over to the little shack and ordered eggs for everyone on the team. When we finished our lunch, we gave our leftover bread to a little boy on the side of the road who looked so excited you'd have thought he'd never eaten bread before (maybe he hadn't), and we followed our translator up the side of the mountain.

That's right. Up the side of the mountain.

In case you weren't a blog reader when this happened, I'll remind you that I'm NOT a mountain-climber. I love wandering through nature, but once you start telling me we've reached new altitudes (seriously, from 4000 to 6000 feet - then back down. then back up. then back down.), I'm out. Sometimes I even got winded walking up the stairs out of the subway station in Korea; mountain-climbing is not in my blood. Unfortunately, whining is really annoying and doesn't make the hike any better for anyone, so I sucked it up and climbed.

And climbed.

And climbed.

I kind of forgot to bring my camera cord with me, so I don't have any way to get my pictures from my memory card to the computer I'm currently using. That's kind of a bummer, but it is what it is.

When we finally reached a place in the mountains where you're actually in the clouds, our translator told us we needed to start praying for a place to sleep. Everyone smiled and nodded, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one silently cursing the man who led me all the way up a mountain without having a plan for what happened at the top. Anil (our translator) walked a little ahead of us, and by the time we caught up with him, he was chatting away with a man he had met on the road. When we reached him, he told us that the man he met was a teacher, and not only had he offered to let us stay with him, but he also wanted us to come to his school in the morning to teach the kids. Naturally, everyone looks at me whenever the word "teach" appears in a sentence, and I immediately got nervous. I know how to teach rich Korean kids who have better vocabularies than most American high schoolers; I have no idea how to teach kids who live in a poor village in the middle of the Himalayas.

The house we were staying in had a single room on the bottom floor, about the size of two twin-sized mattresses pushed together. When you climbed up the concrete stairs, the floor above was about twice the size of the bedroom (I think there was a room for animals on the ground floor that we didn't see). The floor and walls were made of concrete, and the upper floor was lit only by a small fire in the far corner. The teacher and his neighbors sat down in the kitchen, preparing to cook dinner for eleven unexpected but entirely welcome guests, and the team headed out to play in the fields.

While the teacher cooked, our team explored the area. There were about four houses clumped together on the side of the mountain but not much else. A few yards down, a shepherd sat on the edge of a patch of grass, watching two little sheep play in the grass. The sheep played around us like little puppies, and one of the guys on our team decided he wanted to hold one. I wish I had a video of what happened next. Ian made eye contact with the sheep closest to him. We all stood silently while they had their staring contest; suddenly Ian lunged at the sheep, snatching it up into his arms. The sheep started baa-ing like crazy while Ian grinned the cheesiest victory grin I've ever seen. Eventually, he set the sheep back down, and it scurried down the hill to its shepherd. I don't think I ever realized how much sheep adore their shepherd; the psalms about Jesus being our shepherd had never felt more significant than they did in that moment.

The teacher cooked us dinner and laid out mats for us to spread our sleeping bags on. Some time in the middle of the night, the girl beside me realized that I was shivering like crazy and not even a little bit asleep; she pulled me under her blankets and I finally warmed up enough to drift off.

The next morning, the teacher cooked breakfast for all of us before leading us across the hill to his school. They introduced us to the kids and told us we'd be heading over to a playground on the other side of the hill. The kids darted off up the mountain at a pace unnatural to human beings, and we pasted on smiles as we climbed behind them. Every time we reached a flat piece of ground, the kids spread out and started playing, so we assumed we'd reached the "playground." Not so. We'd play a little in the grass, and suddenly the kids would sprint up the side of another cliff without any warning. The boys played soccer with the guys on our team while the little girls took pictures with our cameras and giggled at their faces. In that moment, I'd have traded my macbook for a bottle of nail polish and a few coloring books because I knew how delighted those simple things would make the little girls in my lap.

When we got as high as the mountain would go, Anil sat the kids down in a circle and told them about how much God loves them. Anil told them that they could dream, they could have ideas for great things they wanted to do in their lives and they could actually do those things. We sang some songs and played a few silly games, and we handed out candy before climbing back down to the school. In the end, it was so simple, yet so profound at the same time.

The kids we were playing with will never see an iPad. They don't know what video games are, and they'll probably never try things like ice cream or french fries. Unless their parents can somehow miraculously afford to send them away for school, they'll likely get married and raise their own families in a little two-room cement house on the side of a mountain. Their clothes were washed in a river, and they eat rice and dahl with their hands for nearly every meal. Yet their school takes place on the side of a mountain. Their playground overlooks the most beautiful stretch of land I've ever seen, and they get to spend an entire school day playing soccer with a bunch of foreigners. They're taught to honor and respect people who come to their village and to appreciate what they're given. As I watched these kids chasing balloons through the hills, I thought about my students in Korea with their fur coats and iPhones. I thought about how every time I gave chocolate to my students, they demanded more, but how these kids were so excited to just have a little bit. I thought about the difference between not having any money and being poor, and I started to feel a little sad for those who have everything they want, yet nothing they actually need.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Four hours.

I'm leaving for India in four hours. Four. That's one less than the number of fingers I have on each of my hands. Also, that's the number of guys in 98 Degrees (remember them?). Four.

I just spent the last half-hour reading through my pre-Korea posts, and I stumbled across this one. Fifteen months ago, I was preparing for my first across-the-oceans adventure, and I was scared out of my mind. I remember wanting to unpack all my bags and beg for my job back, but I didn't. I hopped on a plane and moved to a country I knew nothing about, and it was one of the best things I've done in my life. I remember being so terrified that Korea would chew me up and spit me out, that I'd hate every second and wish I'd never left the comforts of America's suburbs, yet I've spent the last three months wishing I were back in that smoggy, crowded city.

I know I won't regret this new adventure just like I'm forever grateful for my time in Korea. The anticipation just sucks.

It's going to be strange traveling with fifteen other people, sharing living space, and not being able to "kamsahamnida" my way out of awkward situations. But overall, it's easier this time. I know that no matter what country I find myself in, I'm just me, and I always like ice cream.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

And the money's all in!

On Thursday afternoon, our teams needed $35,000 for everyone to be able to go on outreach. We cried and we prayed, thinking some of our friends were getting left behind next week.

Then a day and a half later, everything was paid.

We're all leaving for outreach in just a few days. How cool is our God?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

If you've got a little extra cash lying around...

I'm leaving for outreach next week, which means about fifty other people are leaving with me. I was blessed to have money in my savings from Korea, so I was able to pay off the rest of what I owed out of my own account. Unfortunately, the rest of my school hasn't received any severance pay from completing a year overseas, and they still need more money. For everyone to go on outreach, we need to see about $21,500 come in by... tomorrow.

This is just the first of so many miracles God wants to do in the next three months. If you can, please help us make sure no one misses out. Even if all you have is $20, that's $20 we can put to such good use. I know it's the Christmas season and money is tight everywhere, but you can always make more money. We have about 24 hours before plane tickets are cancelled and people are left behind. If there's anything you can do, please help us.

If you'd like to donate, you can click this link to donate online. At the bottom, select "other" for where the funds are going, and type in my name. Once it gets processed, I can move it around to one of the other people on my team who needs it.

Oh, and pray. When we started praying this morning, we needed $35,000. It's not even dinnertime and we've already gotten $13,500. Prayer's been working so far, so we'll keep doing it. Join with us?