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.


  1. I really enjoyed this blog post Nikki, it was greatly written and I got a real image of my head of the beautiful place on the side of the mountain where the school children played. I really connected with this " 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." It is so true and sad in fact! I hope you are enjoying your time and being safe ! sabrina

  2. How profound and wise your words are. I always enjoy reading not only what goes on in your life, but the ability to read it through your eyes is something quite special. So, thank you, my friend, for taking the time to write this not-so-short post in the time that you could've had doing something else. Someday again, sister, we'll be in the same place to do life together. Much love.

  3. You should have been warned that a family outreach is far far far different from a singles outreach:) You are doing great! Wish I could see you graduate...but I will be back in Thailand, just got our year visas approved and we leave in Jan.