Sunday, April 1, 2012


The transition between international volunteer and regular working girl has been a difficult one for me; much more difficult than I might have imagined. As I have remarked to many people upon my return, “As great as it was to leave, it’s so wonderful to come back.” The last few months have been full of unexpected happenings, twists of fate or faith or both. For when I take time to reflect, this period of transition is characterized by yes, a few challenges, but more so the sheer number of blessings and opportunities that have come my way. I’ve highlighted just a few of them below.

Opportunity 1: YAGM Recruiter
When I was still in Southern Africa, I was fortunate to be hired as a short-term recruiter for the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program. This position started a mere ten days after I landed back in the United States in August, and it certainly was a jolt to my adopted “take it easy things will happen when they happen” African attitude. Suddenly my life was full of things: people, contact information, flight schedules, presentations, meetings, and the ever-changing calendar of events. It was a three-month whirlwind that left me exhausted but yet energized and excited about my future. I met some marvelous people on the road, gave many presentations, had amazing conversations and was reminded that, although hard to beat, African hospitality does indeed exist on these shores as well. I gained confidence, assuredness, and a deep-feeling conviction that this kind of work may be what I do best, and I vowed to myself that I would try my hardest to do similar work when my “real life” actually started again.  

Opportunity 2: Family Christmas
After my gig as a recruiter was over, I was able to settle down in Portland long enough to find an apartment and unpack my material life from the few boxes I had stashed in a storage unit during my time away. Unpacking was a marvelous adventure (“I forgot that I own cowboy boots!”) and then I flew to the Midwest for Christmas with my family. What a joy to be surrounded by those who know me best, well enough to know that maybe I was a little tired of telling stories by now but doing what they could to comprehend and understand the deep transformation that had taken place within me as a YAGM volunteer. I spent almost three weeks with my family, reveling in the delight that can only come from not having any reason at all to leave, except the ever-growing concern about what I would be doing with my life next (and how I would be paying my rent). Had I been employed it would have been another rushed week too full of activity to do much but run from one thing to the next, but as that was not the case I took my own advice and was content to just “be” with the ones I love.

Opportunity 3: St. James
When I returned to Portland, now essentially five months since leaving Africa, I was finally ready to start my life again. I was looking for a routine, a steady job, and of course a steady income. Actually, I don’t know if “looking” is even the appropriate verb here, because I discovered that job-hunting is just that… hunting. As in going everywhere in search of that ever elusive prey with only two weapons: my resume and cover letter. I sincerely underestimated the difficulty I would have in landing a job. Granted, I know that my design background doesn’t readily appear to translate into the non-profit work that I was looking for, but I knew I was a qualified applicant… if only given a chance to interview.

However, as it turns out, I did finally land a job; and I didn’t have to interview at all. My pastor at St. James Lutheran Church approached me one Sunday morning in February and said, “I think we need to get together sometime later this week. An anonymous donor has come forward who is willing to fund a part-time position for you. Are you interested?” Interested? I was flabbergasted! So much so that I actually had tears spring to my eyes (this happens a lot more frequently now, I have discovered) and couldn’t say much of anything but an incredulous, “Yes!”

The next few weeks were spent creating a job description, agreeing on a salary, crafting goals and arranging workspace logistics. I couldn’t believe that this was actually happening, and I knew that if ever I had doubted that the Holy Spirit was working in and through us lowly mortals down here on Earth, this experience certainly proved otherwise. Someone at St. James has given me the most marvelous gift: an opportunity to work in a faith-based setting where I am encouraged to form relationships, plan educational events, and connect our members with the world in which we live. Each day, I am humbled anew as I remember the circumstances of my employment and how much my donors believe in me. For believe in me they must, if they spent the time to consider my situation and develop such a strategy as this for my well-being.

Getting a job is, as they say, all in who you know. Donors, I still don’t know who you are, but in your spirit of anonymity I see your presence in every member of St. James. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to grow, serve, and live in God’s presence as the Minister of Community Outreach for St. James. A few weeks ago, dejected by my job search, I would have said that such an opportunity was impossible. Your faith in me has also renewed mine: in myself, in the people around me, the world in which I live, and my God.

I’ve given up trying to think about how opportunity might present itself next; right now I’m content to sit back, relax… and get to work.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


‘The guest is polite, a nice Englishman.  He has come to Zambia to show Africans how to run state-owned businesses to make them attractive to foreign investment… [he] says nothing, but his smile is bemused. I can tell he’s thinking, Oh my God, they’ll never believe this when I tell them back home. He’s saving this conversation for later. He’s a two-year wonder. People like this never last beyond two malaria seasons, at most. Then he’ll go back to England and say, “When I was in Zambia…” for the rest of his life.’ Excerpt from Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller.

A two-year wonder. A one-year wonder. Is that what I am?

Will I continue to reference my transformative year as a volunteer with the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program for the rest of my life? Will I ever go back to South Africa and Swaziland? Go somewhere else? Continue to journey onwards and have adventures? The answer, I hope, is YES.

Will I look back on my time as a YAGM volunteer as the end-all, be-all experience of my life? Will I always be comparing things to it? Will I be unwilling and unable to move on? Will I continually live in the past and close my mind and my heart to other opportunities? The answer, I hope, is NO.

During the YAGM interview process now almost two years ago, I remember being told that the real adventure wouldn’t begin until after we returned home. Hearing that then sounded absurd; what could possibly be “more” than spending a year of my life serving others in another country? I saw adventure as a one-time-only opportunity, rather than an ongoing process.

I see now that this perception was completely and totally inaccurate. In many ways, YAGM now feels like the pre-adventure, the taste of things to come and the kick I needed to get myself moving in a new direction. It has been difficult, more difficult than I imagined, to get settled back into American life. The sudden stress of finding a place to live, a stable job, a supportive community, and meaningful spiritual life has been rather overwhelming at times. Each day I learn new things about myself and the world in which I live. It’s surprisingly similar to waking up in a strange country and wondering, “Just what do you suppose I will encounter today?” Except I’ve learned that I don’t need to be halfway across the world in order to wake up with that same thought.

I guess that means that now, “after the adventure,” I know that I am starting again, journeying again on a road that leads to… somewhere. A destination that is TBD, I suppose. And I’m okay with that; in fact, I love it.

Because when I say, “When I was a YAGM volunteer…” it is with the inherent understanding that while YAGM has shaped my life it in no ways was the singular experience of my life. And while I don’t discredit its supreme importance and impact on transforming who I am and how I view the world, I know that there are other experiences that will continue to do so in my future.

There will be other adventures. I know this, because I’m on one now, and there’s no end in sight.  "After the adventure"... the adventure begins.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


A few weeks ago, I was invited to prepare a sermon to preach during worship. I said "Yes", and then immediately got cold feet when I read the texts for the day. However, I soon realized that not only did I have a story from my recent experience in Southern Africa that I wanted to share, I felt that the texts set the stage for a much larger discussion about evil, fear, and of course, love. This is what I said from the pulpit on Sunday:
They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at this teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28

I was working in the garden. September 17, 2011; 10 days after I arrived in Carolina, South Africa. My host dad, a Lutheran pastor, was out attending a meeting, and I was peacefully watering small, fragile cabbage seedlings with my host mom in our extensive garden behind the house. Suddenly a woman came bursting through the front gate and paused, chest heaving, out of breath, hands on her knees in front of Ma. She was clearly agitated and I knew, even without understanding a single word that was being exchanged, that something bad was amiss. I was not surprised, therefore, when my host mom suddenly dropped the hose and gestured for me to turn off the water at the tap. We rushed to follow the woman back out the gate, not even taking time to wash our hands or rinse our muddy feet. I had no idea what was going on or where we were headed, and my two companions were giving no clues or hints about our destination or our purpose.

However, we didn’t have to go very far; just a house about a half a block away. We opened the front door and right there in the sitting room I saw a young girl, maybe 15 years old, laid out on the cool tile floor, a woman cradling her head and others gathered closely around her sides. Her eyes were closed, her limbs were still, and she did not appear to be breathing. I thought she was dead, and I know my eyes widened with fear. I began to complete a mental inventory of my very limited emergency response skills. “Did anyone check her pulse? Is she breathing? Have we called an ambulance? Is an ambulance even available?” I realized after completing this mental checklist that my quickly mounting sense of panic was not shared by the other women in the room. Instead, they appeared to be completely focused on the girl, speaking to her in rapid isiZulu and touching her either with gentle caresses or violent slaps. I realized that they were praying, alternating between eery calmness and shocking, ear-piercing cries. This realization did not ease my discomfort, or my sense of inadequacy and helplessness in the face of a situation that I did not understand or even fully comprehend. However, I joined them in prayer, using my own language and my own words, holding hands with these women as we together called upon the Lord to provide healing from whatever this girl was suffering from. 

It was not until we left the home many hours later that I was told what I had witnessed. The girl had been supposedly possessed by an evil spirit. Demons, is what they call them there, or an unclean spirit, according to our Gospel today. I had never encountered evil in such a way before, and I did not know how to react… but I knew that my initial reaction was fear.  

Unfortunately, evil can take many shapes and forms, and has many names. There is much about the world’s evil ways that confuse and frighten me, and I often feel paralyzed and helpless about what to do about it. Global warming. The unstable economic situation. Human trafficking. Hunger and poverty levels, at an all-time high in the United States. The ongoing decimation of populations around the world due to HIV, AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis. It is, frankly, enough evil to make a person depressed.

It is into this gloomy scenario that Jesus appears with his disciples in the synagogue at Capernaum. They are teaching there when suddenly this man with an unclean spirit confronts Jesus, who quickly tosses out a rebuke. “Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus makes it sound so easy, doesn’t he? But in those crucial moments between this unclean spirit’s appearance and Jesus’ response, I’m sure he had his own “mental checklist” to get through, his own sense of fear and uncertainty that he had to overcome, before he was able to address and resolve the situation with calm authority.

Blatantly ignoring a problem, fervently wishing it would go away, and distracting oneself with other activities are not ways to approach evil. Evil must be met with confidence, assurance. And, in those adrenaline-fueled moments, it doesn’t even need to be yours, as I discovered kneeling on the cool tile floor in my neighbor’s home. It can be from Jesus, who is sending words to your lips and embraces to your arms that you didn’t even know that you had. Because in a world that is so full of evil things, Jesus is our best resource, our greatest ally, our dearest friend in need, the right authority. All we have to do is trust.

That alone, is a difficult task, especially in light of so many negative issues we are bombarded with on a daily basis. One can watch the news day after day and still ask, “Where is the good news? It seems that things are spiraling out of control. What do I know about anything?”

Paul reminds the early church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8:1-13) that “all of us possess knowledge”. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. In other words, love wins. Love wins over the right answer, the by-the-book procedure that by all logical understanding should do the trick. Love. In which there is no textbook, no handy bullet-point reference list, no exam, unless you consider the practical exam which we begin each and every day when we open our eyes.

It’s nice to think that we are pure, selfless, loving human beings all the time. But in fact, as Lutherans, we recognize that we are in fact just the opposite the majority of the time; habitual sinners. We have plenty of unclean things coming out of our bodies too, people; greed, envy, laziness, a lack of self-control, whatever… fill in the blank.  

But that is just the point that Paul is trying to make. We all have the capacity to harbor unclean spirits, to do bad things and encourage our friends and companions, just by our example, to do the same. In our second lesson, he talks specifically about eating food sacrificed to idols, which is difficult to translate into our culture today. But it does translate in terms of actions. It’s the classic peer pressure line of “but everybody’s doing it”. Or, you can flip it around to what I’ve heard called the seven most popular words in church: “we’ve never done it that way before.” Either through pressured action or pressured inaction, each of those statements has the potential to be damaging and dangerous, to create unclean spirits or attitudes between us because we need, rely on, and take our cues from those around us.

We are not solitary beings. We are made for community, family, togetherness. That’s what the church is; a community. Not a building, not a place, but a living breathing thing that is us. And each week, we gather together, around this altar, to commune together with our Savior and Lord. We need each other to confront the unknowns and the perplexities of this world in which we live. It is much easier to face an unpleasant situation when you are not alone; that’s why my host mom and I were rushed to join in the prayer for our neighbor. I’d like to think that even Jesus, confronted so abruptly in the synagogue, maybe flashed a glance over to his disciples to say, “Are you guys watching this; are you ready to help?”  

This is why we worship together, pray together, sing together, commune together. To remind us that we need each other, and that all of us need Christ. We are weak, ineffectual, trudging through the mud weary without the love and teachings of Jesus in our lives.  Gathering together each week is one way we show that love to one another, and renew our spirits for the crushing dose of reality outside these doors. Because literally, there are issues that confuse, astound, hurt, perplex us right outside these doors. How much longer can we look away?

A commercial frequently shown on South African television a few months ago says this (or watch it below):
 “We’ve all done it. We decide we want something to happen and then… we wait. We wait for a sign, or for someone to tell us to “Go ahead and do it!” That we have permission. Or we hope that by sheer chance that very thing we want will create itself. That it’ll tap dance in to our lives and say “Surprise!” Then, nothing happens. So we watch TV and make fancy plans, waiting ’til we have the money or enough time before that elusive ‘lucky break’. Or sometimes we’re waiting to feel a little braver. For our fears and doubts to disappear. But there’ll always be something else to wait for; until we face the simple truth. That thing we want is on hold, because it’s up to us. We’re waiting for ourselves. Things don’t just happen on their own.”

No, things don’t just happen on their own. Do we have evil out there? Yes. Demons, unclean spirits? Apparently. Bad news? You bet. But is the situation hopeless? No! Lots of the issues we face today are complicated, ranging from the complex global issues of health, justice, and equality to encountering people with unclean spirits- even ourselves. But with Jesus in our hearts, and the support of friends and community by our side we can step confidently and boldly into the world that desperately needs our help. Because the greatest evil we can have is within ourselves: an attitude of inaction rooted in fear. And fear, next to love, doesn’t stand a chance. We are beloved children of God, and don’t need to know much more than that. Beloved. Be Loved. Let yourself Be Loved, and to love others, amid the stress and craziness and apparent disorder and evil that we humans have created in this world.

Brothers and sisters, we are not alone. We are brothers and sisters, united through the Body of Christ to people all over the world, who may speak other languages and suffer from their own kind of demons, just as we do. But Jesus gives each of us the courage we need to face evil with his love, following his confident, perfect example. Things don’t just happen on their own.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Please join me for a 4-week educational series at St. James Lutheran Church, where I will describe many aspects of my journey to Southern Africa and back again with the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program. Bring your questions!

St. James Lutheran Church is located at 1315 SW Park Ave. in downtown Portland. Worship 9:30am-10:30am, Discussion 11:00am-12:00pm. All are welcome!

Jan. 29 Being a Missionary: An Overview 
Accompaniment. Servant-Leader. Solidarity. Ubuntu. What do they mean? Come and find out how these words shaped my journey and the work that I did as a missionary! I will also be the guest preacher during worship, so if you've had a hankering to see me behind the pulpit this is your opportunity!

Feb. 5 HIV & AIDS in Southern Africa
Discover just how much HIV & AIDS affects life in Southern Africa, and what steps the church, the government, and non-profit organizations are taking to eradicate this disease. 

Feb. 12 Race & Socio-Economic Status in the Rainbow Nation
Black, White, and every other Color in-between. My thoughts about being white in a racially mixed country as I learned about labels and racism in a way I never expected.

Feb. 19 Spirituality & Faith: Here and There
Dancing in worship? An attitude of daily prayer and regular thanksgiving? Hear about how living one’s faith looks different in Southern Africa than it does in the USA.