Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Trip Home

"Please, celebrate me home,
Give me a number,
Please, celebrate me home
Play me one more song,
That I'll always remember,
And I can recall,
Whenever I find myself too all alone,
I can sing me home"

 - Celebrate Me Home, by Kenny Loggins 

Boarding was supposed to begin at 12:30 am, the flight scheduled for take-off by 12:55 am. As I stood in line I shifted under the weight of my backpack. From behind the check-in desk, a man leaned towards a microphone and made an announcement.
"The plane is undergoing an inspection. We are told it will be about another thirty minutes before you can board."
Around me, people groaned. I sat and read over the outline of a 'speech' I'd written for the next day, answers to interview questions I looked forward to presenting. I rewrote parts, memorizing it. Tiredness pressed on me, but also hunger. Finally I got up and bought a bag of peanuts. I sat and watched the front desk, watched people come from the plane with clipboards and confer with the stewardesses, as I ate peanuts methodically, two at a time. We finally boarded by 2:00 am.

I slept, if you can call it that. Around 3:30 am, dinner was served. I ate my tray of chicken and rice and salad and called it breakfast.

In Houston, I made my way through Immigration, my eyes blurry with sleep behind my glasses. "Please go to Customer Service," I was told. There I waited in line with a number of other people who had missed their connection. I had barely missed it, at that. Sadness swept over me, for I knew I would miss the window for the "Team Talk" interview, unless I managed to arrive before lunch was over. I received my new ticket and hurried through the inspection of my bags. I made it to the gate 15 minutes before boarding, enough time to take out my contacts and wash my face in a bathroom sink. I opened up Skype on my iPhone and called the man at the taxi service with whom I had arranged a pick-up. I informed him of my new arrival time before standing in line and boarding the plane. I spent the flight reviewing my speech and reading "Catch 22". Finally in Chicago, I collected my bags and tried to call the taxi guy. But my phone refused to connect to the internet, no matter what I did. Hauling about 130 pounds of luggage with me, I walked and walked until I found a payphone, strangely placed behind a huge flight chart, skeevily out of sight. When my quarters fell straight through the phone, I realized that though they are US currency, they were printed in Ecuador and are just different enough as to not be electronically recognized. I scraped up enough dimes and nickels to make the call. The phone rang and rang without answer, and without the option to leave a message. Frustrated, I hauled my bags awkwardly to a Starbucks counter and asked if they could give me change for a dollar. Back at the phones I deposited another fifty cents ... for nothing. I called the ITeams office but was told it was a bad number and received my change back. I walked outside and scanned the waiting taxis but none had the right insignia. By now I was both swearing and fighting back tears.

I sat and opened my laptop. Of course, Skype refused to load until I had restarted everything and let it update itself. Meanwhile I had only 30 minutes of allotted free internet before I'd have to pay, and it was quickly slipping away. All I wanted was to burst into tears, and I was afraid that when/if I finally did get a taxi, I would do just that. So I told myself to stop, to be strong even in this foolish time of frustration over being stranded and alone. Finally, Skype started up and I was able to call the taxi guy. When I met up with the taxi driver, he was annoyed at having to wait so long.
"I called you twice on a pay phone," I said. I still don't know if he never saw the calls or if they never went through.

When I arrived at the ITeams office and was shown to my apartment, I dropped to the floor in front of my suitcases the moment I was alone. I dug around until I found a snack bar, which I inhaled. It was 2:00 pm and I hadn't eaten since being on the first airplane. I gulped down a glass of water, marveling at how strange it was to be able to drink straight from the tap without purifying it or being afraid of getting sick. When I felt better, I walked across the hall and knocked on the door of the Snyder family. On my own door was a drawing from their young daughters, and a note inviting me to dinner. The moment I saw them, everything was a little bit better. We had met three years ago in that very building as I was preparing to go to Ecuador and they were starting the process of fundraising and moving to Spain. They had been going through an arduous visa process and were finally approved to fly out Christmas day. We had kept up via email, so getting to see them again was a delight. We hugged and talked before I went back to my room to rest. That night I went over and ate chicken casserole and berry cobbler as we talked and talked. They asked me about Ecuador and culture shock and language learning and what was the best and hardest things about living there. I asked them about how they envisioned life in Spain and the ministry and school for their girls and how the whole process of getting there has been long and tiring but good. We each wanted to know everything, because they and I have been on similar journeys with aspects which can be difficult for others to understand. Their girls drew me a picture and we reminisced about playing in the snow together three years ago, the first time I been in real snow.

The trip was all so mostly awful yet ended so well. Being back in the States feels strange at first: familiar but different. Seeing friends from a specific time and place helped me focus and not be overwhelmed, and was a beautiful welcome. When I flew home to Texas two days later, I was more ready than ever to see my family. We hugged and talked and ate Mexican food together. After a long trip, it was so good to be home.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


"Sometimes, I feel the fear of uncertainty stinging clear
And I can't help but ask myself how much I'll let the fear
Take the wheel and steer

Whatever tomorrow brings
I'll be there with open arms and open eyes

Whatever tomorrow brings
I'll be there, I'll be there"

- Drive, by Incubus

I was nervous about driving. I’m back in Texas – visiting - after two years of working in Ecuador. I flew back once during that time for a wedding, so in all, it was a year and eight months since I saw my beloved family, my beloved Texas, and since I drove a car or saw a real sunset. I renewed my driver’s license and picked up the car some friends are generously loaning me. My first trip was careful, cautious. I’ve walked and relied on buses, taxis, and friends for the whole time I’ve been in Ecuador. But soon, I was reminded of this fact: I love driving. 

I think it’s the freedom and control that I love. The act of deciding and going and having my own space to sing and think and be. I drove, yet I also thought of my bad driving experiences, like rear-ending someone and being rear-ended. I thought about the cold, dark, early morning when I went around a corner and hit a patch of ice. My car spun, nothing but dark shapes moving past the windshield, before I hit a tree and fence. I sat in shock, headlights fixed on the tree and part of the road. I got out, saying, “No, no,” before seeing the smashed bumper. Alone in the middle of a dark country road, I turned and ran. I ran maybe three dozen yards before turning and running back towards those forlorn headlights. I bent in half and cried. Then I called my Mom and drove the poor car home. 

I thought about that experience because I knew that as much as I might feel in control behind the wheel, things can change in a single moment. I thought about this while driving in one of my favorite places: a long road which passes through a stretch of open country which will one future day likely be transformed into suburbs and shopping centers, yet for now holds spreading pastures and lone farmhouses. I looked at the fields and woods and gentle hills rolling out before me on every side, and at the huge sky which was turning orange with the setting sun, and felt a swell of love for the place I’m from. I always want to love the place I’m in and be able to see the beauty in everything possible. This returning makes my Texas more dear, more appreciated and treasured, just as the time away from Ecuador will make it a little dearer when I return. In all truth, I have two homes right now: the place I’ve been called to work in and in which I’ve established a home and life, and the place which shaped and grew me and which I know I can always return to. Of course more than just a place, home is family and friends in Texas and calling and friends in Ecuador. 

I drove, rolling down the window so I could breathe the fresh country air. I drove, in control for the moment, but knowing that could change in a moment. Maybe control is nothing more than an illusion. Maybe that’s disquieting, or maybe it’s comforting. I will choose comforting. I choose to let God be in control, since He is whether I like it or not, and since listening to His calling is much better than trying to drown it out with my own earthly desires, like a child throwing a fit. Unfurl the road ahead. Light the way. With help, and the occasional crash and run and starting again, I’ll do my best to follow. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Verses In Progress

Later, I'll need to write about this week, and the death that touched everyone here in the missions community I'm a part of. Until then, I found some bits of verses that were started and aren't yet ready to be finished. This week, a life - a story - ended, though everyone else's stories are still in progress. 

City lights, so beautiful
The lives they represent
The progress and the hoping and the change

Still, I long to turn them off,
Every now and then to see
The stars and moon and planets in their range

Chase after solace
Find peace in the silence
Alone I must go,
Till together we’ll know
What to hold to so tightly
And what to let go

A rasping melody
is still musical
Even if it’s not music
A doubtful hope
is still optimism
Even if it holds doubt
So may we look for the lovely
in the midst of the mess
And have the faith to still proclaim it good

You’re more than just a body
an idea, or a name
More than a set of fingerprints
or something one can tame

No DNA or code of cells
writes up what’s all of you
Splendiferous, mysterious
comes close to what is true

Friday, November 27, 2015

Snipets of Daily Life (part 2)

I walk down the sidewalk, hiding behind large sunglasses and headphones which pipe podcasts and music into my ears with every step. A woman walks past me; she reeks of marijuana. As used as I am to the sight of people opening smoking a joint in public here, and the accompanying smell, still something inside me draws back. Before the woman passed me she walked past a mother in indigenous garb, stooping down to use a long piece of cloth to secure her baby to her back.

I sit in the back of the bus, heading home. I notice a woman whose black hair is streaked with white. She wears it braided and twisted into an elegant bun. From behind, I think she must be around 60. When she stands up, her face and fashion look much younger. 40 is my new guess. Few women let their hair become salt-and-pepper, choosing to dye it instead. On her, it is beautiful. She is stunning, a mix of graceful age and youth, a mystery. She walks off the bus and I watch her until the bus pulls away. White-streaked hair like a crown, long red coat cloaking a tall, full-figured frame. Timeless.

For three hours I sit in front of my computer, surrounded by receipts. I take a pile of expenses and categorize them: food, transportation, hygiene, school, clothes, home maintenance, etc. Each receipt is recorded into an excel. Date, amount, and description, all typed out. I take the organized receipts to the office, and two days later I return to pick up a check. When the check is cashed I dole out funds to the house-parents and the tutor, any staff member who has a legitimate need for Casa Gabriel money, and write down every cent. It may not be a glamorous part of my job, but I enjoy it. I enjoy taking numbers and turning them into something, turning them around so we can all keep going.

From behind me, Moises says my name and pokes me. I jump with surprise and he apologizes, grinning. I grin back, telling him it's fine. In truth it makes me happy to see him tease me. When he first came to Casa Gabriel he was shy and withdrawn, as many of the boys are at first. To see them come out of their shells and be interactive and happy is so good. One day it was clear that Moises was no longer the boy who asked to be excused from the dinner table the moment he was done eating so he could go be alone. He is one of the boys. One of the family.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Snipets Of Daily Life

"It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense."
 - Mark Twain

From the backseat of a taxi, waiting at a red light, I see a man without hands walking between the cars. Using the stubs of his arms, he carries an open bag, asking for change by simply pointing it towards the car windows. No verbal or written words are required. Before I can reach for my purse or open the window, the light changes, and I am drawn away.

The 18th-month-old baby girl in Casa Adalia sits on the floor and wails. I reach down, lift her up, but she struggles angrily against me, twisting and crying. She wants whatever wrong was done in her mind to be made right, wants her mom to come and undue this injustice. Yet as I hold her, she drops her head slowly against my shoulder. With a sigh she wraps an arm around my neck and holds on. We stand there in silence, holding on, breathing, and being okay.

"Quieres jugar conmigo?"
Janoah's brown eyes are wide and expectant.
"Que quieres hacer?" I reply, and she takes my affirmative reply that yes, I will play with her, takes my hand, and leads me to the couch which is transformed by make-believe into a home. I am the mother and she is the daughter, and I take her to school and buy a cake for her birthday. Then she is the mother, tucking me gently into bed.
"Tu estas dormiendo," she informs me, and as instructed, I close my eyes in pretend sleep. She smiles, planning the next part of grown-up life she will walk through in make-believe.

Parking cars is the family business: bright orange vests are worn by the wife, the husband, and draping down over the knees of the son and daughter. They direct the traffic in front of the church, helping cars parallel park or back out along the narrow neighborhood street. I walk down the sidewalk to Casa Gabriel and see the daughter, swallowed in the huge orange vest. I smile at her and she drops her eyes, dark hair falling across her face. Her hands are tiny, yet even so, they can help direct traffic; she on one side of the street and her mother or father on the other.

Monday, November 2, 2015


"We've come a long way you know, living inside a dream
Waking to find that we are kings and queens"

 - Kings And Queens, by Brooke Fraser

Gracie has long brown hair and bright eyes. At church, nearly everyone knows her name, knows her laugh, and expects to see the wheels of her wheelchair decorated with large, colorful paper circles.

Gracie was born with Down Syndrome and diagnosed with Leukemia at age 2. Complications from many rounds of chemotherapy which were battling the highly aggressive cancer left her brain very damaged. She is unable to speak or walk or feed herself, though she can communicate through expressions and grunts and her glowing smile. Her daily life is totally dependent on other people. Yet the fact that she survived at all was a miracle.

A few years ago, when Gracie was attending Georgetown High School, a campaign started to nominate Gracie for Homecoming Queen. The idea of a few students took off; on the night of Homecoming, Gracie wore a sparkling dress with pink tights and was wheeled onto the football field by her father to wait with the other nominees. When the name of the Queen was announced, everyone in the auditorium began to clap and cheer. A photographer friend of mine gorgeously captured the event: the shock and wild delight, the sheer joy of the moment, was written all over Gracie's face. No words of surprise or thanks were needed.

Gracie was crowned the Queen, and a moment later, the King was also crowned: Jared, a fellow student who also had Down Syndrome. Jared stood beside Gracie in her wheelchair, the King and Queen smiling and smiling as the rest of the school cheered.

Because of Gracie, her parents founded Brookwood in Georgetown (BIG), a place where adults with disabilities can find purpose through community and learning life-skills. They bake, create pieces of pottery and greeting cards, and grow sunflowers. They are told that they are valued. That they have something to contribute to the world.

As children, most of us pretended to be princesses and knights, inspired beings from fairy tales. We were told by encouraging adults that we were beautiful and brave. But what about those who grew up with other children looking sideways at them, asking their parents why that child had almond eyes and just seemed ... different? How wonderful, then, that those children can grow up to be kings and queens. Just for a night, perhaps, yet captured forever in photographs and the sound of cheering. Our beautiful and brave kings and queens.

Brookwood (BIG): http://www.brookwoodingeorgetown.org/

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Sowing Seeds

(from my monthly missions newsletter)

Sometimes, boys at Casa Gabriel chose or need to leave the home either for a time or permanently due to unresolved conflicts or family difficulties. However their stories do not end there. Not even close.

You may remember that about a year ago we had a boy named Daniel living in the house, whose sister Margo attempted suicide, miraculously survived, and ended up living in Casa Adalia for a time along with her four children. Just as the Casa A team has continued to be a part of Margo and her children's lives when she was able to find an apartment and begin a new, more stable chapter, the Casa G team has continued to help and disciple Daniel when he chose to move out of Casa G to help his family. Daniel's decision to leave was based mostly on his father, who is elderly and very frail. When Daniel's other older sister was no longer able to care for their father and her children and younger sister, Daniel found a low-income housing apartment and approached Casa G about helping him afford the deposit. Daniel is barely 19, still in high school (many youth here don't graduate until they are 22 or so because of dropping in and out of school due to poverty), yet for most of his life, he has been the man of his family. His two older brothers were killed in drug/gang related deaths, and his mother died when he was young. When Daniel's father was healthier, he was not a great father to his son. Even so, Daniel has stepped up, saying, "He is still my father. I'm going to take care of him."

Ever since Daniel left Casa Gabriel, Phil has encouraged him to stay in school, to keep moving towards graduation and a better future. They made an agreement that as long as Daniel stayed in school and kept up with his grades, Casa G would pay for his school expenses. Daniel has kept his word and been faithful to his education. Now more than ever he has been coming back to Quito (he lives in Ibarra, about four hours away) to visit everyone at Casa G. Last Sunday he walked into church with his backpack of things, a huge grin lighting his face as he received hugs from Phil, Debbie, and I. Daniel truly has a smile which transforms his face. He can be stoic and serious, with so much weight on his shoulders, yet in his smile you can find the youthful hopefulness and love for life which God has planted inside him. His smile is delightfully infectious.

It's wonderful to dream about taking in these boys and giving them safety, stability, healing, and love. I and the rest of the team want to bring them away from the pain, hunger, abuse, and fear they have known and say, "No more." But sometimes, that is only possible for a bit of time. With Daniel and others, one thing is very clear: their stories are in progress. We may be simply one chapter, or some footnotes here and there, just like the sower from Luke 8 who didn't know where the seeds he scattered would land. Yet I believe whole-heartedly that, incredibly, despite the loss and grief Daniel has known in his life, he is a seed on good soil. He is a disciple who will go out and make disciples. I can see it in his smile.