Party Time!

One of the perks of being a cultural mentor is the parties. I’ve never before been to a ten-year-olds girl’s birthday party that was essentially a dance party, but Africans know how to celebrate!

As I’ve seen among other cultures, the gift I brought was immediately taken from me and spirited away to a back bedroom. My Bhutanese friends didn’t open gifts at their parties, either. In their culture that would give the appearance of being greedy. Gifts are opened later, privately.

When I arrived, the music was already playing and several people were dancing. The apartment was decorated with balloons, Christmas garland, and a light up Santa—very festive! Relatives and neighbors were there, many of whom I had met before, including many children and babies. The birthday girl’s sisters were there, looking beautiful in new dresses, and their mother was there too, wearing a pretty blue suit. But the birthday girl herself was nowhere to be seen.

I could hear several of the women helping Sandra prepare. Her sister whispered to me, “When you see Sandra, she is SO beautiful!”

Eventually the birthday girl appeared, dressed beautifully, including a birthday crown and an Easter hat, and blindfolded. She was led to a chair and given a jar of flowers to hold. After a minute or so the blindfold was removed. After another few minutes, Sandra was handed a lighter and proceeded to light the candles on her cake. Then she blew them all out, one by one. Next she was given a knife, and she proceeded to cut the cake. I’ve never seen such creative cake cutting before—most pieces were huge triangles or other odd shapes. Unlike at most American parties, the cake cutting did not stop when everyone was served . . . it seemed to be Sandra’s job to cut and serve the entire cake.

After we were all stuffed with enormous pieces of cake, dinner was served. The hostess invited the American guests to serve ourselves first at the buffet, typical in most cultures I’ve experienced. Thankfully, the other guests followed immediately after us, and did not watch us eat alone first.

All this time, the music continued to play and guests continued to dance. Cell phones were busy taking photos and videos. The birthday girl’s mother did not even stop dancing to eat. She ate and danced simultaneously, burning off a few calories as she consumed them.

When I eventually got up to leave, I danced a few songs with Sandra and her mother. I know I was immortalized in several cell phone videos. My African friends love it when I dance with them. I’m really not a good dancer, but I can swing my ample hips to the beat, which is sufficient to bring them joy.

One of the many lessons my refugee friends have taught me is how to celebrate. Celebrate birthdays, celebrate accomplishments, celebrate life. Despite the challenges, life is good, and worth celebrating.

 

 

 

 

Sanctuary

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
    for the rights of all who are destitute.
  Speak up and judge fairly;
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

(Proverbs 31:8-9)

All Souls Church recently voted to offer physical refuge for undocumented immigrants who need sanctuary. All Souls belongs to a coalition of other churches and individuals throughout the city, including myself, who are committed to spend our time, money, and energy to love our immigrant neighbors.

On the day between Father’s Day and World Refugee Day, we held a press conference to announce the formation of the Sanctuary Coalition. The Coalition includes four local churches, an immigrant rights group, and several individuals. A variety of brief speeches were made at the event: about the biblical call to offer sanctuary; about the fear in the immigrant community; about the importance of keeping families together; from a 10-year-old US citizen whose parents are undocumented, and from a DACA college student, both of whom just want their families to stay together and have an opportunity to pursue their dreams and contribute to America.

The point of the press conference was not to brag about our good works. On the contrary, if an individual or an organization secretly offers sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant with a final order of deportation, they can be found guilty of harboring a fugitive. It is imperative for a church or coalition of churches to go public to the press, law enforcement, and the community when declaring sanctuary.

Churches have a long history of offering sanctuary. In Numbers 35 in the Bible, God commanded Moses to establish six cities of refuge throughout the land of Israel—cities to which people could flee for safety until they were given a fair trial. “These six towns will be a place of refuge for Israelites, aliens, and any other people living among them” (verse 15). The instruction for cities of refuge were repeated to Joshua in Joshua 20.

Historically, sanctuary has been offered in ancient Australia, Africa, Egypt, Rome, and Greece, as well as in medieval Europe and Britain. In the US, churches offered sanctuary to escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad, as well as to organizers during the Civil Rights Movement. US churches offered sanctuary in the 1980s to Central Americans who were fleeing US-backed wars in their own countries. In Denver recently, three individuals have taken sanctuary in churches. Each case has successfully allowed the immigrants sufficient time to get their legal cases in order, and they have all been granted stays of deportation. Sanctuary works.

Why am I a participant in and supporter of our local sanctuary coalition? Because of God’s repeated invitations and commands throughout the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—to love my neighbor. In action. God commands over and over again to welcome the stranger, to love the foreigner, and to not oppress the alien living in your land, but rather to treat them as the native born. We’re reminded to show hospitality, which in the Greek—philoxenia—literally means love for foreigners. We’re told to love both our neighbors and our enemies, in very concrete ways. In God’s Word, love is never a sappy feeling; love is action.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. … Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” (James 2)

Compassion is another word that’s never sappy in the Bible. Compassion means to suffer with. Compassion doesn’t mean merely refusing to pile on the oppression—though that’s also important. Compassionate people do not stand by and observe injustice. Compassion means to suffer with the oppressed, and to stand up for justice to be served. “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another'” (Zech 7:9). Consider the compassion that God shows to us: Jesus left his home in heaven to suffer with humanity, under Roman oppression, and ultimately to die for us. We are called to have the same kind of compassion that Jesus has on us.

In Isaiah 58 we learn that God has no patience for empty worship and religious celebrations. What God desires from God’s people is that we practice justice. (See also Micah 6:8.)

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God. …

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

To those who claim that these immigrants are here illegally and therefore we shouldn’t help them: it’s incredibly difficult for most people to come to the US legally, and for many people it is outright impossible. I remind you that immigration violations are civil, not criminal, in nature. I also give you this from James 2: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Finally, the nations will be judged on whether we give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, shelter to the stranger, clothes to the poor, and visit the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25). It is in caring for the least of these that we meet Christ.

 

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Click below for the cover story in the Colorado Springs Independent:

https://www.csindy.com/coloradosprings/progressive-churches-prepare-to-protect-immigrants-in-the-heart-of-trump-country/Content?oid=5218982

 

 

 

Guatemala

Walk with Us in Our Search

Help us discover our own riches; don’t judge us poor because we lack what you have.

Help us discover our chains; don’t judge us slaves by the type of shackles you wear.

Be patient with us as a people; don’t judge us backward simply because we don’t follow your stride.

Be patient with our pace; don’t judge us lazy simply because we can’t follow your tempo.

Be patient with our symbols; don’t judge us ignorant because we can’t read your signs.

Be with us and proclaim the richness of your life which you can share with us.

Be with us and be open to what we can give.

Be with us as a companion who walks with us—neither behind nor in front—in our search for life and ultimately for God!

These words were written by a bishop in the developing world for those who come as missionaries to Latin America. The poem is quoted in the book, ¡Gracias! A Latin American Journal, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, and it provides a relevant framework for my upcoming trip to Guatemala.

In early September I will travel to Guatemala with a team from my church. This trip will be an experience of learning together from our brothers and sisters in Guatemala about how they are reaching out and serving their own communities holistically. We’ll visit churches in the capital—Guatemala City, in rural areas, and at the border with Mexico. Some of our learning will be around the push and pull factors of migration, and how the local churches respond to those factors.

While I’m in Guatemala I hope to meet the 8-year-old girl I sponsor through Compassion International. I’m thrilled to be able to meet her and to learn more about her community and her country. One of the reasons I chose a child in Guatemala is to, in my own small way, combat the forces of poverty and violence there that compel people to leave their country.

Many of the women I interviewed in Baby Jail came from Guatemala, fleeing horrific violence.

I don’t go to Guatemala to solve any problems or to change the world. I go to observe, to learn, to share my life with people there, and to understand more of God’s big world. In preparation I’m reading several books in addition to the books my team is reading together. In Inside Central America, I’m getting a crash course in Guatemalan history. In ¡Gracias! and Love in a Fearful Land by Henri Nouwen, I’m learning that following Jesus by walking with the poor can sometimes be interpreted politically. Even though both of Nouwen’s books were written in the 1980s, they feel particularly relevant today.

“This is what the LordAlmighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” (Zech. 7:9-10)

If you want to receive email updates about my trip and what I learn, simply leave a comment to that effect. If you’d like to partner with me financially, you can use the link below. My expenses will likely be about $2,000. Contributions are tax deductible. (If I am unable to go on this trip for any unforeseen reason, your contribution is not refundable. However, it would be used solely to support the ministry that my team serves, or will be given to a ministry at the discretion of the First Pres Global Engagement Team.)

Thank you for joining me as I continue to pursue proximity and partnership!

https://first-pres.ccbchurch.com/form_response.php?id=235

 

 

Independence Day

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus


Send us your starving children fleeing gang violence,
terrorism, and civil war.
We will welcome them into our churches,
our neighborhoods, our hospitals,
our schools, our workplaces.
We will love our neighbors as Jesus loves us.
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.”
For I was hungry, and you fed me.
I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink.
I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.
I was naked, and you gave me clothing.
I was sick, and you cared for me.
I was in prison, and you visited me.
You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way.
Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land.
Treat them like native-born, and love them as you love yourselves.
Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters.
Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers,
for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!
Remember those in prison [and detention centers],
as if you were there yourself.
Remember also those being mistreated,
as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.
As God’s chosen people, clothe yourselves with compassion,
kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
And above all else, put on love.

(1 John 4:11; Mark 10:14; Matt. 25:35-36; Exod. 22:21; Lev. 19:33-34; Heb. 13:1-3; Col. 3:12, 14)

World Refugee Day

June 20th is World Refugee Day, and our local refugee resettlement agency always celebrates near that date. This is one of my favorite parties of the year. There’s a bounce house and other games for the kids, face painting, free t-shirts, and a potluck lunch. Refugee potlucks are the best, because the food comes from the traditions of a multitude of countries. It’s truly authentic international fare. I don’t even know the names of most of the food I eat, but it’s always delicious.

The table centerpieces are all patriotic: miniature American flags, red, silver, and blue beads, sparkly red and blue stars.

Refugees attend our party from about a dozen countries of origin, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. A representative from each country stands in front and introduces him- or herself and says hello in their native tongue.

One year we had the choir from the local African refugee church sing for us. It was beautiful! They sang “Alleluia Amen!” and prayed to Jesus in Swahili. After the choir we were treated to a performance on the djembe drum by a man from Ghana. Whoo-ee! He got people out of their seats and dancing. After his riff, someone put on an iPod, and like every refugee party I’ve ever been to, the celebration turned into a dance party. Africans from many different countries danced with Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds, Cubans, Karen people, and Chin. It doesn’t get much better than that. Even if you’re not much of a dancer, the beauty of the unity in diversity is clear for all to see. We’re all celebrating freedom.

The UNHCR just released new, updated numbers. At the end of 2016, there were 65.6 million displaced people in the world, more than at any time ever in history. The numbers can be overwhelming, and undoubtedly are even higher now. But those numbers represent individual people, created in the image of God and loved by God. When you get involved personally and get to know individually people who are refugees, the story changes. And so do you.

 

 

 

 

 

Seeking Refugee

I don’t typically ask my refugee friends much about their lives in their home countries. By definition, the lives they fled were traumatic; talking about those experiences can tear open old wounds and retraumatize my friends.

But Bibi (Swahili for grandmother) insisted that she wanted to tell her story.

At a recent event, Bibi got that opportunity. To illustrate her story, we projected artwork from a book Bibi was part of creating, Voices for Peace. Two English sisters had visited the refugee camp in Tanzania where Bibi lived, and taught art classes to help the refugees tell their stories and focus on peace. Through an interpreter and her own tears, Bibi told about the war in Congo—which continues to rage on today—and how and why she and others fled. One illustration showed a grieving man with two children; many of the women were brutalized and murdered, leaving their children motherless. Another illustration showed a boat full of people, a common way to escape across Lake Tanganyika; the next illustration was of a soldier waiting on the other side to kill everyone on the boat.

Though it was difficult for Bibi to tell her story, she wanted people to know the affects of war in Congo. She asked for prayer for her two children, who are still waiting in refugee camps. And she told about the ten year process it took for her to come to America.

Bibi’s story was only one part of the evening. We were also privileged to hear Matthew Soerens of World Relief bring a biblical message of how the Church can respond to the refugee crisis. Matthew speaks truth with compassion and humor, based on his own many years of experience with refugees, and his commitment to the Bible’s teachings. Matthew’s message was practical, informative, and inspiring.

Slide07Slide12Slide19

Finally, we heard from a panel of local service providers who shared about how they are serving refugees and immigrants in Colorado Springs: from cultural mentoring, teaching  English language and citizenship preparation, to pastoring immigrant churches, offering low cost legal counsel, and a free women’s health clinic.

People of faith are responding to the refugee crisis. But when only 12% of evangelical Christians say their views on the arrivals of immigrants are primarily informed by the Bible, something more needs to be done. The Bible is clear about God’s commands to love strangers and welcome foreigners. Christians today need to hear and act on those commands. Millions of refugees like Bibi are counting on us.

 

Many thanks to all who participated in Seeking Refuge. Special thanks to Matthew Soerens and World Relief, who generously granted permission for me to post these slides here.

Spring Break!

“The sustained effort of writing, of putting pen to paper so many hours a day when there are human beings around who need me, when there is sickness, and hunger, and sorrow, is a harrowingly painful job.”
(Dorothy Day, legendary Catholic social activist, in her autobiography The Long Loneliness)

I do not claim to be a social activist on par with Dorothy Day, but this sentence struck a chord in me when I read it. I haven’t been posting much on my blog lately precisely because I’m too busy with actual human beings to take the time to write. I mentor two refugee families, participate in numerous community meetings, lead a prayer group and a sewing group—all related to refugees and immigrants, and I volunteer in a family immigration legal services office. In the last few weeks alone I’ve accompanied families to meetings, banks, government offices, and doctor appointments; I’ve helped enroll a child in kindergarten, and accompanied her and her parents on her first day of school; and I went with a mom to the apartment management office to complain about a toilet that had been backed up for waaay too long. I’ve translated documents from Spanish to English, brought a new student to register for ESL class, and accompanied an immigrant to a court hearing. And that’s just a sampling. But despite my busyness, my husband and others remind me that writing about my experiences is also important.

Happily, both I and my mentor families were free from work on the two best weather days of the spring break week! On Monday two other mentors met me at the zoo with our refugee family from Democratic Republic of Congo: a single mother and her three daughters. We fed the giraffes, visited the zebras and the African porcupine, the lions, and the elephants. Did you know the Swahili word for lion is simba? And the Swahili for elephant is tembo? The girls climbed on all the elephant sculptures, and I’m pretty sure they spent more than their fair share of time inside the airplane, even in the pilot’s seat. We enjoyed a picnic feast, we rode the carousel, and hung out with the primates. The girls climbed on more sculptures and posed for more photos. It was a fabulous start to spring break.

On Thursday the weather was beautiful again, and I returned to the zoo, this time with my Karen family from Burma. Although I’ve taken this family to the zoo in previous years, the husband/father just arrived in the U.S. a few months ago. He happily took photos of all the animals on his cell phone. The five-year-old daughter raced us through the zoo, with more energy than the rest of us combined. She climbed on all the sculptures; we fed the giraffes and the birds, played in the airplane, had a picnic lunch, and rode on the carousel.

These fun times with my families are just as important as the time I spend helping them navigate the complex systems of our country. Everyone needs a spring break. And while my families can’t afford to travel to California or Mexico, I can help them enjoy a special day, spent with friends and family, reveling in the diversity of God’s good creation. We all need time to have fun and make memories. Not only refugees and immigrants, but their mentors as well. Even our Creator tells us to observe sabbath. We all enjoyed the opportunity to have fun together, relaxing and being refreshed. And now, we’re stronger together to face whatever lies ahead.