“find a way – or make one”

“My name is Nancy, and this is my granddaughter, Niki.”

“Oh! I am with my grandmother too!”

My sticky, crumby fingers (thanks, orange jam) reach for the gold-plated teacup to the right of my china plate. The taste of perfectly warm English tea is refreshing; I sigh in delight as I carefully place the cup back on the table. The gold silverware are placed in perfect position, the table linens are iron-pressed, and a stack of intricately decorated pastries lie before us.

As the etiquette guide suggests, I look into my cup as I sip, not over.

I don’t know the first thing about proper etiquette except for the quick briefing I received years ago from Michelle when I visited her home in England.

Luckily, I attended this church’s Christmas tea last year, so I certainly know what to expect. Don’t chew with your mouth open, pass the tea to the right, and for goodness sakes, don’t break anything. Easy enough, right?

My grandmother and aunt have attended this holiday tradition for six years and so I feel all womanly and grown up to be involved now too. Gathered at table 11, we are ready for prayer, scones, and a short drama about Jesus’ birth.

This story, though, isn’t just about this lovely gathering of family with light conversation. This is a story about God.

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As the cuppas were poured, soft laughter ensued and conversation shifted from crocheting and cookies to life situations and God’s faithfulness.

Nancy, the woman who first introduced herself, reveals that she is excited to join us for Christmas tea today because she “doesn’t get out much.” I tilt my head in curiosity and she explains further, with far more detail. She’s an older woman, but a strong woman, and so I wanted to know more.

For the last 10 years, she reveals, she has been her husband’s caretaker. Determined and resolute, she explained she could never place him in a facility. Cooking, cleaning, bathing, everything: she does it. In awe, my mouth dropped. She wasn’t even finished.

A deep passion began to resonate inside of her, and with outward boldness she declared that this was marriage to her; 60 years of it taught her as much. “I want young people to know…when you sign up, you sign up forever. It’s not easy! There are good times, and there are hard times, but love is sticking through it. You just keep going…It’s through sickness and health. Through everything.”

I wanted to give a standing ovation in that moment; the best I could do was mutter a meek “wow” and say, “that’s amazing.” Luckily, God would allow much more room to speak.

I ate my cheese and couldn’t stop thinking about what she had said. It reminded me of the kind of love I had seen in Garry & Grandma as she was dying slowly and painfully years ago. That’s a really special kind of love. I wasn’t sitting there in self-pity; actually, I was sitting there in deep gratitude. To see that kind of conviction is a blessing; I can tell that God has placed Nancy in just the right place, at just the right time. And, perhaps, has done so for years and years of her life. That’s a special kind of faithfulness. That’s only God.

Five cheese cubes later, my work with the Women’s Bakery arose in the chatter. I explained further about the women that we work with and why working with them is just so special. I could feel myself glowing – like bragging on an over-achieving child or something – as I shared the commitment I saw in the classroom to learn and to believe in their own capacity in ability. I too was quickly on a soapbox about women’s empowerment and the importance of allowing women a voice in the world. As I spoke, Nancy was quick to write a sizable check and pass it to me with grace and with humility. Shocked, I left my seat to get close to her, to hug her, and to express my amazement at her generosity.

The exchange went something like this,

“Oh honey, I want to keep on contributing. I don’t have a computer, but I will keep it up. I just know this is important…”

Stuttering, I say, “Oh!….Um…I will write you a letter…”

“That would be great darling.”

“And, I want to say, it was also a blessing to hear what you said about marriage today. I’m really inspired by your commitment to your husband. It was an honor to hear about your life. Thank you.”

She smiled ever so softly.

Just wait, dear! Just wait. Wait for the right person and you will see God provide for you in ways that you could not imagine. Let me tell you something. My granddaughter here, Niki, was in a traumatic car accident when she was 11. She had to re-learn everything. To speak, write, think, walk…everything. Her father never stopped supporting her. Her mother too, always encouraged her to remember that despite her disability, she could still do anything God set her mind to. When her mother died, her father never stopped serving and loving her. That’s love, my dear. That’s love….You just have to wait. You have to be patient.”

I turn to Niki, Nancy’s granddaughter, “You are a miracle. I hope you know that.”

Nancy nods and continues, “Yes, she is. God has done amazing things. For all of us. That’s how I was raised, to know God is able, God is mighty, and God will do great works.”

“Where did you grow up?”

“Right here in Denver! But you know what, my mother was actually raised in Atlanta. And she wrote a book about her mother, my grandmother, who grew up in an orphanage. She would always tell us, ‘find a way or make one!…If you are dishwasher you will be the best darn dishwasher that you can be. If you are failing, you must ask WHY? God has given you the greatest gift you could ask for: life. So live it. You must live it’ ….But anyway, the orphanage would later become Spelman College – you know that place? – and my mother wrote a book about it. I would love to share that with you sometime, I can definitely get you a copy…”

I realize in this moment that God did far more for me in this interaction – in this day – than I could have ever imagined. He answered my prayers.

To be honest, as I drove that morning over the long, black highways of Aurora to get to this tea gathering, I doubted a lot of things. I reflected on some of the people I had met on my recent adventures in Kigali and thought, “how am I going to have that kind of fellowship with people here…? People drive everywhere! People are on the move, God, how will I find community here?” While living in Rwanda does bring it’s own set of difficulties, it is often easier for me to adjust there. It feels more natural to me, frankly. And so, coming back to the USA, prepared or not, is always a struggle, particularly in the spiritual realm. My life in the USA always brings a falsehood of control, and when I realize how much I don’t know, I get a bit unsettled and freaked out about where my life is going.

I listened to this woman speak so much truth and it was clear. Community is found in waiting and in trusting patience. I learned that from Nancy – because of her own relationship with the Lord. And while her truth was a sweet blessing for me, my ability to listen was just as important for her. To be heard – that’s a gift, that’s fellowship, and that’s the foundation of a community. I didn’t realize that my community might come in the form of 78-year old women, but God is always doing things that we don’t expect. God allowed me to be blessed in a collision of people where I could be a blessing too. Um. THAT IS SO COOL.

“Nancy, I would love to come over and hear more of your stories. I really would…”

That’s all it took. Quickly, she was writing her phone number, her address, and her name on a scrap piece of paper.

“That would be so great. Please, let’s do that.”

Her eyes looked surprised, content, and thankful. This woman of God inspired me in her faithfulness – in her life, in her relationship with her husband, and in the way that she carried herself.

For me, I was just grateful that God could use someone like this to remind me, once again, that above all of our fears, questions, and doubts, we just need to love Him, and love others. He will build our community; He will deliver His plan; we just must wait. In hope, in expectation, and yes, in love.

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I read a beautiful, small and timely piece of scripture this morning. It pointed back to Nancy, it pointed back to God’s calling on our lives, and really the wonderful gift of freedom we have in our lives – no matter where we are, no matter what we do, and no matter our circumstances –

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men.”

Colossians 3:23.

Yes. Find a way or make one. Trust God, because He – above all things – is faithful.

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experiencing fellowship

I’ve been reading through old journals, scribbles, and reflections and found one the other morning that brought me back to dragon fruit, fresh spicy cilantro, and a thickness in the air that allows little room for breathing. 

I was reading about my time in Vietnam – 6 years ago – when I went on a 2-week trip with a group of Hendrix College students. 

We had traveled to the country to work in a remote, small village to build and assist a community in building homes. More than a “missions trip” the focus was to talk to people. Observe. Listen. It was intentional in that way, and because of that, there was an openness established from the beginning. 

Vietnam was one of the first distinct experiences I had in completely surrounding myself in another culture. The biggest one, to that point, really had been moving to Arkansas for school. I mean, let’s be real, it’s Arkansas

I wrote in my journal of a poignant moment towards the end of the trip,

On the boat ride back from the village, the mother of one of the families we worked with took my hand and held it the entire boat ride. Language became nothing in that moment, our communication surpassed words. She gave me a beautiful bracelet off the realm of her dainty wrist. Why? Maybe she wanted to say ‘thank you’. Maybe she noticed me looking at it. Or maybe, it was simply an act of love and recognition of value. She had been the same woman to dance with me at the BBQ, the same woman who shared her children’s upbringing, and the same woman that worked alongside me to lay bricks. We had fellowshippped together and so maybe sharing her bracelet was to serve as a reminder for how God completely transcends anything we know, understand, or grasp. He is at work. At home, here, and in this woman. Thank God for that. 

When I experienced Vietnam, I was introduced to the idea of surpassing cultural limitations.

I firmly believe that’s something God has called me to do.

Below is a video that is just a small piece of what a meal was like in Vietnam. A Vietnamese BBQ to be precise. Grilled pineapple, rice wine, and roasted meat – and that was just the beginning. Like a humid, summer day at the park with family, it was about togetherness. And fellowship. Always fellowship.

That’s a girding force behind moving forward and choosing to do “The Experience.” It’s about building my own relationship with God so I allow the transformative experience of God to work under any kind of circumstances. Any.

http://kbm.donorpages.com/TheExperience/HeatherNewell/

Life in Dulles – Welcome to the VLOG World

The force of just how small I am in this world hit me like a door in the face as I entered Denver International Airport (DIA) today.

Man, I thought, I’m crazy. 

Dad’s gold Ford truck hummed haphazardly away from curbside check-in and suddenly, it was me and my 4 bags full of American goodies, clothing, and books.

For some, “getting real” looks like a down payment on a house, or a car, or that feeling of when you spend the night in your first grown-up apartment. I guess for me it’s taking multiple international flights with all my big girl stuff and dreams full of tamed idealism so that I can live in Rwanda for a few months and see what micro finance in education actually looks like on the ground.

This ain’t no Peace Corps thang. While Peace Corps is beyond tough when it comes to adjusting with integration and life style changes, on some level you always have a safety net of support that’s there. Sure, it’s not always the best, but it’s there.

For the first time in….well, ever, I feel totally, completely grown up. I’m an adult. All of this is in my hands. Finances, food, health, and work. It’s on me.

I realized today as we soared high above the beautiful American landscape that for me to be “successful” this summer I will have to believe in what I am doing. Not just now, but as the process unfolds.

Like a small piece of malleable clay, I need to be open to learning and change as a student ought to be.

But, I need be also assertive, strong, and confident in what I know, who I am, where my beliefs guide me, and what I think.

This, my friends, is the real sign of adulthood.

Which….feels a bit ironic considering the first episode of my “vlog” that I’ll be using throughout the summer as I work everything in my fellowship, live in the city, and experience Rwanda again, albeit differently.

It’s certainly not the most “adult-esque” or mature thing I have ever done, but hey, even with adulthood comes the right to always be silly.

Episode 1 – The Lion Queen – Life In Dulles

oops. i did it again.

When I left Rwanda nearly 5 months ago, I was stopped harshly at the check-in desk for Brussels Airlines and forced to dump approximately 17 pounds of items on the spot. Nothing like traveling between homes.

Wouldn’t you know it, of course my bag would be overweight…it’s all those dang journals!

Stressed and frazzled I focused on eliminating whatever seemed useless in that particular moment.

Funny how time works.

I could really use that tattered rain jacket.

That one worn Kinyarwanda-English dictionary seems like a gem, now.

Even my old Eddie Bauer toiletry bag that was so difficult to part with would be nice to have in possession.

As it turns out, y’all, I’m going back.

Wait.

WHAT?

“But you just got home and now you are leaving…again!?”

The bottom line is that when the right opportunity becomes available and just feels right, it has a way of making itself known.

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I will be working back in Rwanda – this time in the big city, Kigali – as a summer fellow with Vittana, partnering with a local microfinance institution.

Vittana is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works around the world to increase students’ access to student loans. Many developing countries do not have the established loan practices we have here in the States; many students, especially in a place like Rwanda, are starting to finish secondary school but then have no ability to utilize capital and so they fail to move further in higher education.

Enter Vittana:

Vittana partners with an institution (like a bank) that provides loan packages and then helps to “scale up” the efforts so more students become involved and are guided along a career path that will help them not only pay back the loan, but maintain a livelihood that exists outside of poverty. There is an obvious risk in lending to students (what kind of collateral do they really have? How can you be sure they will be able to qualify and successfully make repayment?) and Vittana assists in developing programs that consider and monitor this risk so that students still borrow but smartly and in the right situations.

The fellow position is competitive (check out some of the bios here: Vittana Fellow Bios) and involves working alongside a variety of people to make all of this happen. It’s a lot like being a consultant; for example when in Rwanda this summer, I will be writing a major compilation of processes in how we plan to develop the loan product. I will also be able to connect with students and market the loan in consideration of what their goals, dreams, and realities are.

I found Vittana on a Peace Corps jobs board. I filled out the initial application right before I rushed out on a date. I remember thinking as my date drove me off in his obnoxiously big white truck: maybe that was it…?

I strongly believe in what education can do for young Rwandans and I’m most excited to stay involved with that sector of development, albeit a new and different angle.

Vittana’s main website is here and I highly encourage you to check it out to get an even better picture of what the organization is all about:

Vittana

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I was attracted to microfinance and education in the first place when I came home and grappled with the realities of my Peace Corps experience:

Are lives actually different- from all those lesson plans I was involved with? From a wide-array of camps

…..what’s still missing?

The answer is access. This particular summer opportunity with Vittana is a way for me to gain perspective on the inner-workings of what happens when a door is opened for promising, talented, and dedicated students.

I don’t necessarily know where this is all taking me. I’m okay with that. I do know that working within women’s empowerment, life skills, and education really does all tie together.

The best thing I can do for myself is continue to enjoy the ride, wherever it might take me.

I’m leaving the country May 13th. (?!?!?)

I’m happy to say that I’m starting to get everything in order and certainly, more details are to come. The fellowship is unpaid and so I am left to prepare my finances, get my ticket, and pack my bags. Once again. As always, my family is as supportive as ever, for which I am grateful. It can’t be easy having a daughter run off to Rwanda all the time.

I can’t really believe this is all happening but I am so glad that it is.

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