stand by me

Ben E. King authored (brilliantly) “Stand by Me” in 1960. It’s one of my favorite songs – ever. Always has been. At least since I started listening to music as a young girl. The lyrics are hauntingly stunning and poetic. So simple – and yet they say so much.

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

I stumbled across the Tracy Chapman cover this week and it’s been on replay for the last few days. I love her humble renditions; something about her voice brings me to tears frequently.

Always, it seems, I hold tightly to “Stand by Me” when big change and transition presents itself in life.

*

Three years ago, I remember sitting underneath the expansive, starry, deep blue sky at Maisara’s home in our village. I still had 6 months left in my Peace Corps service, but we were talking about the pending change – and what would come after.

“We don’t always know what is ahead of us, Maisara,” I began, “but, you can be sure that no matter the distance between us, I will always stand by you. I will support you, love you, and encourage you – no matter where I go. I want to hold onto these times forever, but don’t worry, even better is going to come. Just you wait and see.”

She chuckled, almost in disbelief, “Yego sha! Turi kumwe.” (Yes my dear, we are together).

I didn’t have to say anything. I knew I would remain true to my word. In turn, I knew she – and her sister – would continue to impact my life in unimaginable ways. They have. They do. They will.

They, along with 4 other girls, are a part of a group of women that have already changed their country. They hail from deep village pockets; from places many Rwandans have never heard of. They went to a tired, resource-lacking public school. Be it sickness, death, poverty, divorce, or hunger, they struggle.

Still. That is only one side of their story. They are writing the next part. They write with their excellent marks; with their leadership positions; with their shifting attitudes; and with their dreams. Always, with their dreams.

We talk monthly, and though they don’t realize it, those conversations are often what propel me to keep going too, to keep my head up and remain open to all that life has for us.  They inspired me when we lived together so many years ago – and even now they have the ability to do so. It’s incredible. They’ve taught me so much about life. They are the great storytellers in my life.

Three of these girls will FINISH their secondary school this year.
Three of these girls will FINISH their secondary school next year.

When I left Rwanda, that was my dream. That our lives would remain connected; forging together with gusto; and helping pave the way for greater access to education. It’s happening – and we’re almost there. If you want to help the girls finish the sprint to the finish you can contribute to the fund here

I set out to raise $4,000 to make this happen about two years ago, and now, with only a couple terms to go, we’re only in need of $625! Let’s do this. Murakoze cyane. Thank you very much.

*

king’s kitchen talk

My dad dropped an important truth on me a couple of weeks ago: he had met and shaken hands with Rosa Parks back in the 80’s when she visited Denver.

Being a lover of all things Civil Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., and racial equality, I couldn’t help but bathe in the shock that my dad had actually had this experience. Part of being an adult, I think, is realizing, recognizing, and valuing the fact that our parents were once – and still are – humans all their own. Yes, they had lives before the little ones came along.

As we sat squished together in the car to find Christmas lights scattered across Denver, at the very place he had met Rosa, I asked, “how in the world have you never told me this before…?”

Just a week after learning that my dad escorted a group of distracted, unknowing high school kids to meet “the mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” I found myself amidst sparkling sunshine, old pavement, and historic buildings in Montgomery, Alabama. My feet had landed in a place where much of the movement had started and catalyzed; I was on the soil of history.

Montgomery, before anything else, is historic. The monuments, buildings, people, parks, and places are laden with history. Amazingly, this is a place that was “the cradle of the Confederacy” and also the site of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, the origins of the Montgomery Improvement Association and freedom rides, the hot-bed for Martin Luther King’s speeches on non-violence, and the destination of the Selma-Montgomery march.

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The capital of Alabama, Montgomery has around 200,000 something people, but it also has my best friend, Rachel. Brilliant, determined, patient, and fiercely loyal, this girl and I have been having adventures since 2007. She’s that person you can call to talk about nothing in particular, or to explore some of life’s most pressing questions. We’ve been known to have 2,3, or 4 hour Skype sessions. Hello. She’s the kind of friend that you share your ice cream with, because let’s be real, you can’t do that with everyone. We’ve been friends long enough that she has managed to put up with all my craziness – and loves me not in spite of it, but because of it. She doesn’t expect me to be anything but myself. That’s real, authentic friendship.

So, why not visit “The Capital of Dreams” and see her work in the Alabama Archives, all of the beautiful oak trees, and of course, these pinnacle places and stories of some of the most important parts of our country’s history? Working remotely, though quite challenging at times, also has amazing perks. Travel is one of them. I can literally work from anywhere.

*

So, I came. From cheering on the Crimson Tide for the national championship to exploring Selma on my birthday to watching far-too-long episodes of The Bachelor, these two weeks in Alabama were precious to me. There really wasn’t a dull moment. And, honestly, it reminded me that our feeling and ever-seeking desire for “home” is less about place – more about people.

One afternoon, as I stood beneath a large painting of Rosa Parks at the appropriately named Rosa Parks Library & Museum, I was overcome with emotion. A large quotation above the painting with a multitude of colors read,

I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear. – Rosa Parks

How desperately I want to live a life without fear, I thought.

I moved to my left, stumbling (literally – I am kind of a klutz) into a sculpture of Dr. Martin Luther King, to signify a defining moment at 309 Jackson Street at Dexter Avenue Church’s Parsonage, where he was staying while preaching and working in Montgomery.

The sculpture captured King in his kitchen. His forehead was crumpled. His fingers lifted high, with an expression of release, surrender, and honesty. It was 1956 and he was 27 (weird to think that I am too!) and had been helping to lead the bus boycotts for the African American community – in efforts to debunk the societal norm of white supremacy. He was leading a community onward to equality.

But, the fight wasn’t easy. He sat in his kitchen with a small cup of brown coffee, late into the night, because someone had called and said simply, “get out…or we will blow your brains out.”

The moment captured – with his hands held open – was the moment he began to pray. He wrote about this in his book, Stride Toward Freedom.

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

All of this didn’t hit me until later in the week.

As I always do, wherever I am, I went on a walk.

On this day, the walk led around the curves of tall red-bricked warehouses and rusty white columns of Grecian-inspired architecture. I was listening to a podcast – Rachel introduced me to these gems of knowledge – and I was watching my feet glide over cracked pavement when I looked up. Before me was the small, simple parsonage of Dr. Martin Luther King – the place that he had this beautiful experience of prayer. A bit weepy, I put my sunglasses on. I thanked God, because I think He knew I needed to see this – in person.

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But as it is with God, that wasn’t the end of this story.

Just days before I was set to come back to Colorado, I headed to pick up Rachel from work. I had walked in and out of historic Old Alabama Town, thinking about what it really means to own what we believe.

How do we transform from awareness to action; from truth to love?

I decided to turn on yet another podcast – this one from Colorado Community Church.

Speaking about the power of Jesus as a discipler – demystifying the often-accepted idea that we have to do the work – Pastor Robert proclaimed that it is JESUS that even discipled a man like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was GOD, through the divine nature of the Holy Spirit, speaking to him in his kitchen.

It was the third time in a week that this particular story had come up – first at the museum, then at the parsonage, and finally in a sweet, unexpected moment walking through green-lined urban parks.

When something like this comes up one, two, and three times, I know there is something I need to learn. Something I need to reconsider.

*

We are celebrating Dr. King this coming Monday and as we do, I know that I’ll be thinking about the power of the truth he stood for. The gospel meant so much to him that it informed and transformed an entire movement of people.

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I’m scared to acknowledge what I believe to be true sometimes. This could be about my faith – but also about issues in politics, identity, and what it means to be a woman. Frankly, I’m usually too concerned with what other people will think about what I believe.

I don’t want to be afraid anymore. I don’t think it’s what God wants us to do – and moreover, it keeps up from recognizing and seeing the truth that is there for the taking.

Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.

*

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breathless with bare feet.

Psalm 118:1: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.

My bare, musty feet are warmed by the smoky flames just a few inches away. I hardly notice; I’m focused on the expansive sky above me, glittered with stars, heaven, and just enough glimmer from the moon. I’m in the village, and as usual, my breath is taken away. I know there is no camera that could capture this moment; no words that could suffice; simply one of those moments in life between you, God, and the people there with you. I love that feeling, it’s one of my favorites. For the first time in a few weeks, I feel like I can breathe. No distractions. I’m on the precipice of an exciting transition back home and so I’m perfectly content just you know, taking it all in.

Eugenie is in the outdoor kitchen adjacent to the traditional Rwandan mat preparing rice and a tomato sauce for dinner. Her mother, seated next to me, is telling me about her own parents, and what their life was like in the Northern Province when she was growing up. I love tales from times before now; they feel authentic, genuine, and wisdom-ridden. That’s why I love hanging out with older people, I think. 

When the meal is ready, we go inside. I follow the blinking torch Eugenie holds; I’m village deep, meaning I sure ain’t going to be charging my phone anytime soon. It’s freedom, in a way, because I’m fully present, fully aware. Dinner is uneventful, and soon we are laying our heads to sleep to prepare for the next day. We are meeting the other girls from Ruramira in the morning – a reunion of sorts (the first time in 2 years where the GLOW girls are all together!) – and so rest is not optional. We’ll need it.

The next day is Saturday and it’s beyond full. I wake up to just-enough-sugar tea and warm water to bathe (from a bucket, obviously). When I am perfectly presentable (Eugenie is sure I didn’t miss a spot) we walk 40 minutes to a home not far where I used to take residence, and share fanta, laughs, and stories about school with the other girls. All of them have one or two years remaining in their secondary education and so it seems crazy that I started teaching them when they were just in Senior 1 or 2! …Perhaps I am that old?, I wonder. 

I’ve been back to my village numerous times since finishing the Peace Corps 2 years ago, but this time is special. The girls are all together and so it just proves, once again, that a place is about the heart of those that you love – not even the beauty that surrounds the mountains, trees, and hills. God’s spirit is what makes a place full. The girls cherish this time, but because it’s rainy season we eventually move quickly back to our respective homes; some back to the north part of the village, some far out in the Eastern part of Rwanda; and for me, I’m headed to Maisara & Zahara’s home for the evening. 

We travel there and my! It’s cumbersome. Mud trickles in our toes from heavy rains and once again, I’m barefoot. When we do finally reach their humble abode, Zahara does something intensely intimate and beautiful. 

She washes my feet. As the mud trickles away, I find myself in tears. There is something so personal about this – and I remind Zahara of the way Jesus washes the disciples feet in the Bible. She smiles and remembers too. “No problem, my dear…I’m happy to do it!” Of course she is. We share traditional Rwandan food shortly thereafter (cassava bread, obviously) and we fall asleep under a mosquito net to the noises of frogs, fireflies, and a crying cat. I love it out here. In the morning, it’s time to go. We say goodbye and though it hurts my heart, I feel so fresh, clean, and abundantly joyful. It’s sad to leave; but what a mighty blessing to have come back in the first place. My, my. Once again, Rwanda has reminded me of the deepest provisions He has given me – new life. With beautiful people. With beautiful experiences. I can see Him in everything…and so yes, I’m left breathless. Breathless with bare feet.

In addition to all the fun I have had in this season in Rwanda, God has also provided experiences of deep reconciliation, opportunity, and faithfulness. I can’t possibly recount or describe it all in just a few words. But there are many, many stories. I suppose that’s why I write at all. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead and sharing some of what has happened here. About doors that have opened. About doors that have closed. I have a job that I love and I can’t wait to see the roads and opportunity it brings. I have the world littered with people that I love deeply – and that in itself is such a blessing in these uncertain and scary times in our world. I have a family that is scattered – and that too, is a reminder that as God’s people we are far more united than we think. God is doing something, and that something is very special. And it’s not just me – it’s all of us. It’s these deep corners of joy that God desires for us. Not because life is perfect, but because it’s perfect in its’ imperfections. He is the one constant; He is the great provider and His love truly does endure forever. Shoes or no shoes.

A new season is upon me, and the only way I can describe it as I gear up for a long flight home is simply, breathless with bare feet. I’m renewed, excited, grateful, and just….content. All glory to God.

the beautiful Eastern Province. A home, of sorts.

the beautiful Eastern Province. A home, of sorts.

Where peace transcends all.

Where peace transcends all.

simplicity.

simplicity.

dream (big).

“I don’t like chocolate but I like jellybeans.”

Yep, that’s Emmy. One of about a thousand “Emmy-isms” one can get in the course of 24 hours with the guy.

Emmy is the fiancée of one of my dear friends from the Peace Corps. We served together in the same cohort or group, and in doing so, shared some important life experiences, changes, and relationships. I wouldn’t meet Emmy until after our service had fully completed, and when I did, I remember thinking, where did you find this man? Overtly goofy, dramatically kind-hearted, and inquisitive, he was a different kind of man, and I was thrilled that my friend had met someone (even around the world!) that carried such a spirit and heart for life.

They had met in a small village out West in Rwanda. The hills, red clay, and bananas of the East were my typical domain, but the terrain of Western Rwanda is distinctively different. Scattered with terraced tea plantations, gray gravel treks of incline, and capped by rolling mountain tops, I have always been left breathless by the intensity of that kind of landscape. Much like comparing the rolling Tennessee hills of Appalachia with the domineering geography of the Rockies; a special kind of dominance is apparent.

From colleagues to committed relationship, the couple are having their long-awaited wedding ceremony this fall following numerous visa complications and months stacked together with distance between them. Something like 7,511 miles. Talk about some kind of global relationship.

It has been a joy to journey with them – even in the complications – and getting especially to know Emmy.

Eccentric, boisterous, and resilient, Emmy has been in education (a teacher of entrepreneurship) for the last few years. He is an advocate, promoter, and big fan of planning for the future and being open to any kind of possibility.

Perhaps that is my favorite thing that I’ve witnessed and seen in Emmy throughout our conversations and time together: his dreaming heart.

*

I traveled to Emmy’s hometown a couple of weekends ago. The trip requires around 3-hours in a large bus weaving up and down, in and out of the “thousand hills” as Rwanda is often affectionately called. The journey pulls you towards Lake Kivu, on the border of Congo, and a word of advice: do not sit shotgun on these busses! In a move of what I thought would be undisputed brilliance, I grabbed a seat next to the bus driver immediately upon purchasing my ticket. Nobody else had taken the seat and so I just smiled, thinking I had been endowed with a small, extra, little blessing. Um. Not really.

With no seatbelt, I shifted back and forth, back and forth, falling upon the driver and the window over and over again. Whiplash? Oh, absolutely.

This is just on the main road, y’all.

Hitch a motorcycle taxi upon arrival to the appropriate town and plan for the following during the next hour of your life: a numb butt, gravel in your face, and gasping breaths when you descend below mountaintops with elevations far above 4,000 feet. Seriously. It’s adventurous, but even for a risk-taker like yours truly, it’s kind of terrifying. I saw cassava fields; I took a photo of an abandoned 4-wheel drive car that had fell in the rivers’ valley after falling asleep at the wheel the night before; and I became lost in my thoughts as I witnessed 6 men carrying an old woman with a traditional stretcher to the hospital around 5 miles away. The best part of motorcycles – even in their scary nature – is that you can see the road in ways you might otherwise miss.

all the mountains. always.

all the mountains. always. Birambo, Rwanda.

The buzz of the engine pulsated heavily as we climbed and I was convinced that Emmy had laid down roots in the most remote corner of Rwanda. Surely….this was just, well, it was just crazy!

I knew I had arrived when I saw an energetic man smiling, shouting, and waving from a grey compound near a football field. Yes. Emmy. I had made it! Engulfed in a large hug, I met his dog, Rama, and we shared the meal he had prepared for my visit (my favorite): cassava, beans, with some banana too.

Emmy & Rama.

Emmy & Rama.

the best of the best: cassava & beans - made by Emmy.

the best of the best: cassava & beans – made by Emmy.

It seemed ironic, as we ate this humble, delicious meal in such a rural place to know that in the following month he would be America-bound – for the indefinite future. He shared of his life to come over the next couple of days – even as he showed me the place of his past, such as the location he had gone to kindergarten, the church he attends, the neighbors he has known forever, and his favorite place to watch football. It was an honor to see the roots of this man; it was an honor to hear and discuss his hopes for marriage, future, family, and opportunity. His dreams are spiced with a bit of everything: fullness in his relationship with his wife, the possibility of helping his community with a school project one day, and the pursuance of furthering his own education.

This is all the more profound knowing Emmy’s background. His life has not been easy; in fact, he has overcome situations and circumstances that many would deem “impossible.”

Again, that’s where I am most inspired in this friendship with Emmy – he has a dreaming heart because He knows that the Lord provides and he actually believes it. That is the only possible explanation of the inter-workings of a life such as his.

*

His vision and desires encouraged me to think of my own dreams I have kept inside of my heart. Some “feasible” and some not so much. But what do I know? What may not be feasible to me is nothing in comparison to what God can do. He really can do anything.

If I could do anything, I would write a book and it would be based on stories demonstrating how God moves across cultures, experiences, and provisions: I also hope one day to ride in a hot-air balloon, get a dog, volunteer in a nursing home, and of course, continue my passions for travel (Italy, Greece, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, Madagascar….the list goes on..)!

I dream to be married, have a family, and perhaps even adopt – if God so wills it.

I’d like to visit all 50 states in the USA; I think it would be cool to open a specialty macaroni & cheese restaurant; pay off all of my debt; and help people plan trips in and around Rwanda in my free time. I hope one day to run a marathon, too. I’d also love to pet a baby elephant. Just to be brutally honest, here.

I dream for a cute, humble home – wherever God places my feet. Porch swing is a must.

Sigh. Man. It’s fun dreaming, isn’t it?

It’s people like Emmy that encourage this kind of thinking; I find that to a really beautiful, inspiring quality.

*

Hearing Emmy’s dreams and considering my own, I’ve also been able to see this played out in the ways God is revealing Himself to me lately.

In a crazy work by God, He has pointed me back to Matthew 25: 14-28 about 10 times explicitly in the last couple of months. We studied this passage closely in a lesson this summer during The Experience and when I asked a question about it, the speaker almost prophetically said, “You will likely need to keep turning back to what Jesus is trying to say in this parable; keep digging, keep exploring.”

I didn’t think much of it – until my church back home in the US AND a church I have been attending in Rwanda are simultaneously dissecting and working through this passage. It was a pretty incredible coincidence – if you believe in that kind of thing. I know it’s purposeful.

In these verses of Matthew 25, you can read about The Parable of the Talents.

Essentially, a man brings together three of his servants, and before going on some kind of journey, entrusts them with an apportioned amount of “talents” (worth more than a thousand dollars in today’s conversions). To the first servant, he provided 5; to the second, 2; and to the final servant, 1 – each according to their abilities.

The parable continues to explain that the first servant (with 5 talents) put his resources to work and was able to gain 5 additional talents. The one with 2 talents had the same kind of experience, gathering 2 more talents. However, the man who only had 1 went ahead, dug a hole, and in fear, hid his master’s money. When the master returned and followed up on the actions of his servants, he was incredibly pleased with the first two, acknowledging their faithfulness of both of them:

“Well done, god and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt 25: 23).

The last servant explained his actions by excusing himself in the following way,

“’Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was AFRAID and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.” (Matt 25: 24).

The master was furious. Not simply because his offering wasn’t multiplied, but because his investment was wasted.

In reading this and being consistently placed back in this story, I have realized the need to live daily with God and trust the “initial investment” first, trusting that the return will be God’s desire in the first place.

So, in seeking ways to be a good steward little by little, my prayers have been for a fearless, mindful, and committed offering of four primary areas in my life:

Sleep. Money. Food. Time.

Like the first two servants, if God’s given me enough time to sleep, enough money to live into many blessings, enough food to enjoy the beautiful experience of eating fully, and enough time to use, then certainly, I can be discerning in how those play out in my life each and every day. If I invest these initial talents in the way the Lord desires, then those crazy goals above? They might happen. They might not. But, it’s truly important to do the first things first.

Emmy spoke about this quite a bit in his own dreaming – and I think it’s an incredibly life-changing truth as we think critically about the lives we are leading. The human experience is a beautiful balance of hopes and practicalities. I know the Lord will lead us in that – if we so let Him, and surrender our ways to His.

I used to be a kind of girl who would prefer to stay up till 12am, pumping out work, or “obligations” and then waking at 5am so I could do all the other things I needed to “do”. I didn’t used to tithe, and I would never pray or give thanks before meals (not even considering the miracle of food on the table!). This isn’t because I was a “bad” person – goodness, no. But, I wasn’t stewarding daily life well. I liked to be in control; I liked the driver seat. This will and always be a struggle for me.

As I have pressed and asked God what to do about this, it’s been the four words above (sleep, money, food, time) that have presented themselves.

All I did was ask.

Also, as I have committed to this, it’s kind of crazy – the dreams, hopes, and visions I think for the future actually seem possible.

God is no genie, that’s for sure, but He does love us and He does know our hearts. Walk in that, surrendering on a daily basis, asking questions, and it can really change your life.

*

AMASHYO : wishing you many cows.

AMASHYO : wishing you many cows.

Cows, milk, & dreams.

Cows, milk, & dreams.

Emmy showing me the lay of the land and sharing insights on his way of seeing the world.

Emmy showing me the lay of the land and sharing insights on his way of seeing the world.

See that hill? That's Emmy's stomping grounds. That's at least a two hour walk. OH DANG.

See that hill? That’s Emmy’s stomping grounds. That’s at least a two hour walk. OH DANG.

Learning the insider scoop to Rwanda's mainstay at the bars: Goat Brochettes. This man, Fiston, has been doing this since he was a little boy.

Learning the insider scoop to Rwanda’s mainstay at the bars: Goat Brochettes. This man, Fiston, has been doing this since he was a little boy.

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good morning, birambo.

6 girls, 6 degrees: 2020.

It started with Divine & Yazina; two young women that impacted my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2011-2013.

In finishing my service late 2013, I was determined to continue to be an advocate for girls’ education. Of the many issues of the world that can pull heartstrings, this was the one for me, and teaching in Ruramira revealed that over and over again. It was the girls who had educated me on life, cooking, new conceptions of woman-hood, family, and rural living in Rwanda. Their lives exuded both joy – even in the midst of hardship. Without them, I am confident my service as a teacher would have been greatly, greatly different. I know, without a doubt, God placed these group of women in my life for a reason – I see that more as the years go by. IMG_2716

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More than teaching, they simply demonstrated what it means to live simply and to do so with both great humility and strength.

Yazina has gone on to study physics & chemistry at a “school of excellence” in the northeastern corner of the country (upon visiting I was amazed at the plethora of labs with microscopes!) and Divine is studying history while pursuing her religious interest with peers at school. I’ve visited both, and I’ve been pleased to see that their school environments are significantly more positive than what is offered at our home, in the village.

As supporters came, so did the ability to grow this cause. Because of my own continued professional opportunities in Rwanda, I have had the unique chance to stay in touch with not only Divine and Yazina, but also Eugenie, Maisara, Zahara, and Donatha, Divine’s sister. 

Eugenie and her deep love for reading.

Eugenie and her deep love for reading.

Each girl is from Eastern Rwanda and each girl has visions for their future. With increased funds, I felt led to expand the offering to the girls listed above. Maisara is studying in a school tucked away out West (studying math & chemistry); Zahara is in training to be a nursery school teacher; and Donatha is new to the Secondary School scene – having started this year.

These girls became my friends 4 years ago; now they are like sisters. I’m happy to share this donation opportunity again. For those that have helped been a part of this dream – I, and the girls, are forever thankful and full of gratitude. They have shed tears in thinking of the generosity they have seen. They tell me, “this is the great blessing in their life.”

See the link below for further opportunities to contribute – the last $800 that I am fundraising for will cover the finishing expenses to get these girls all completed in secondary by 2020. Amazing. Praise God and that this may glorify His good work in this country – and in them.

Educate “The Girls”

a grandmother’s blessing

“Grandma, where are you?”

A bit flustered and slightly more concerned, I entered Fairmount Cemetery all the more clueless. I tend to do this – if I don’t know where I am going, rest assured, I’ll figure it out. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

Per my father’s advice, I did try and go to the main office to ask for directions to Grandma’s gravestone. However, on a day full of tractors, construction, and barriers, I was unable to find my way to the main office.

Back in my car, I said a quick prayer, Alrighty, Lord, please show me where she is.

I drove around with direction and determination, but with equal levels of uncertainty. The windy roads took me past thousands upon thousands of massive tombstones. Around since 1890, and the second oldest in Denver, you can just imagine the sheer amount of names visible every which way at Fairmount.

Blazing bulldozers drowned out my music yet before reaching for the radio, I glanced left and immediately remembered where her small plot had been established. In a garden nook, somewhere on the North side, lies a beige-red stone with the name Genevra Newell, 1937-2011.

Thank you, Lord.

*

When I went to visit Grandma yesterday, I didn’t stay terribly long. Maybe, 15, 20 minutes? Still, it was life-giving and something I knew I needed to do. I prayed to God, spoke to her, and just sat in the blustery rain, flat on the ground.

As my time drew to an end, I was full of incredible gratitude. Here lies a woman that so intimately influenced who I am while growing up; yet, how blessed am I, that now, my maternal grandmother is doing the very same thing. Without question, she has taken the reins.

*

Monday thru Friday you will find Mary Lou behind her desk at the Aurora City Municipal Court processing paperwork, filing documents, answering phones, and delivering customer service that would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. She has been doing this diligently for something like 13 years now, and she’s absolutely brilliant. If you are looking for someone who can treat a person with genuine kindness, she’s your gal. It’s in her blood.

Born in Wausa, Nebraska, a small Swedish community of around 700 people, Mary Lou knew manners, generosity, and humility. When founded, the original settlers – a group of 12 families or so – had called the place Vasa after the Swedish King, Gustav Vasa. However, it was altered to Wausa when combined with letters from the acronym “USA.” That’s an American story, if I have ever heard of one.

Her grandmother had emigrated from Oopsala, Sweden (that might be the most fun word to say, like, ever) and moved to the mid-west, speaking only Swedish when she arrived.

When grandma finally came along, and grew up in this little community, she graduated in a class of 25. She knows what it means to know everybody. Literally.

She’s naturally a Cornhusker; journeying off to the University of Nebraska for school. She was hardly “just a student” though: she was a daughter, sister, and community member, carrying her Wausa roots every which direction she went. This was all the more important when she wistfully recalls her precious relationship with her father. Watery eyes and a strained smile, you can tell how much she loved him. He died at an early age, when she was 23, after a successful career as dentist and mayor. Without a doubt, she was a daddy’s girl.

Imagine then, the boldness it would take to leave these small-town loyalties and move to Chicago, one of the biggest cities in the United States. More than just a move, she would become a flight attendant for United. In perhaps a small plight of destiny – as flying in the air often brings – she met my grandfather on a flight too. “Charming,” she said, “and traveling with an old friend from my high school,” they chatted and connected in a scene that seems a bit Hollywood-esque to me. I suppose that’s because when I board flights these days, whether to Africa, St. Louis, whatever, I talk to anyone and anything that moves….still no husband yet. I’ll keep you posted.

Mary Lou – Grandma – would become a mother as well and move to Brighton, Colorado, where my grandfather became a mayor and architect. Her daughters, she has told me, “mean everything” and they are truly her “pride and joy” in life. Numerous times, especially when I was young, my parents would drive us by mom’s childhood home in Brighton and I would ohhhh and ahhhh. It’s a classic American home; blue with white trim, with a Victorian touch. To me, that’s the kind of home I would love to have a family with. Old, rustic, worn.

Raising four (yes, 4) girls is heroic, in my opinion. I recently watched a friend from high school hold her 1-month old daughter in her arms, and feelings of awe, amazement, and respect filled my heart. The kind of investment raising a child requires – emotionally, financially, spiritually, everything – is the most selfless thing you can do. I believe that.

*

Fast forward 50 years.

50. years. 

That’s half a century. In that time, birth, life, joy, death, sorrow, separation, and love has happened to my grandma. It boggles my mind, sometimes, when driving together after church, to think that this woman has put so many years into life. And yet, it propels me to share as much as we can together. Not for the sake of solely wisdom (that’s great too) but also because that is the kind of beautiful, positive legacies that God can call us to create with our families.

In the last 9 months or so, we have been spending most Sundays in the pew together at Colorado Community Church; we have cleaned house together on Sunday afternoons; and we also have shared wonderful meals for dinner – at Mimi’s Café, Rosie’s Diner, the French Press, you name it. Aurora is full of good eateries and we have tried a good bulk of them.

Our conversations, however, are what sustain this guidance and love that she has placed into my life. We honestly share our difficulties, our struggles, and our wounds. So, in this time, I have moved away from just seeing this woman as my grandmother. She’s truly a woman, a human, a child of God, and seeing her in that light changes everything.

*

I mused over this yesterday at Grandma Jenny’s grave. I never got to see my fraternal grandmother this way – with this kind of intimacy. As a growing child and teenager, she was my angel. Certainly, I don’t think this was simply because she took Lance and I for frozen yoghurt or let us watch too much Care Bears or purchased us Oregon Trail for the computer. I think on some larger level, I knew she was protecting me, nurturing me, and loving me. That was enough.

gma

Now, as a young woman, my other Grandmother is filling a different – but equally important – role. She is my encourager, supporter, and defender. You see, being 26 brings different problems than simply wanting to play soccer at recess with the boys or going to Dairy Queen for an Oreo blizzard.

What do I do with questions about love, identity, career, God, Jesus, friends, family, and making decisions?

I go to her. And for this season of life, I can’t really think of a greater blessing. To have been companions, in a sense, with both of my grandmothers is only something I can attribute as a unique, rare gift from God.

My family is far far from perfect. I assure you, we don’t prance around in flower-fields, holding hands in the sunshine, and singing songs of praise for each other all the time. That would be nice.

No, there is brokenness, there is hurt, and there are issues. But, let me say this:

this is normal. THIS IS NORMAL.

I think I’m emphasizing that for myself more than anyone.

In a lot of ways, I think I spent the first 20-ish years of my life wishing and hoping my family could be “perfect” and that we could sweep our issues under the rug and call it good.

What my grandmother has now been able to demonstrate and show me is that with family, perfection will never be in the equation. However, if you are so blessed to have your family within reach, then by all means, accept, love, and grow together.

*

I’m packing today for a 2-month training this summer in ministry. My hope, above all, is to grow intimately with God. A big part of that – I anticipate – will be learning how to accept family, how to honor them, how to give thanks for them. We carry around brokenness in backpacks, taking it along for all of life’s journeys. A good chunk, though, can be set free. That’s what I am most looking forward to. In a one-word summary, that’s what the Gospel gives. Freedom.

Grandma is dropping me off at the ministry’s campus tomorrow, which is all the more appropriate. It’s been her, praying alongside me this last year, and filling my mind, soul, and heart with a kind of compassion that only a woman full of life could know.

Thanks Grandma. I’ll miss our Sundays together, but in two months, I know we’ll be at it again.

I love you.

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*

John.

My offering is a torn and used instant oatmeal box stuffed with goldfish, crackers, candy. This, passed from hand to hand, is in Park Hill, on the Northwest corner of City Park.

Any local paper is guaranteed these days to evoke fear, concern, and confusion on an incline in gang activity just a bit further North; the numbers don’t lie. 19 names are listed on the Denver homicide list on the 7Post’s website, and there are numerous articles with testimonies to what it has been like in the various neighborhoods and “territories” affected (Surging Gang Violence -the link here also includes a powerful video from a local pastor who preaches to the Cole neighborhood, one of the more highly affected areas.

Yet today, I don’t see that, and I don’t think John does either.

*

Following the last of my sessions on travel writing, I left our workshop with my laptop and keys in hand. A new wine bar was opening that evening, just off Colfax, but I bowed out of peer pressure from my writing acquaintances. Wine with writers breeds good stories to be sure, but so does exploring our city on foot. Plus, the sunshine was just too lovely not to enjoy.

I packed my car – good ole ‘Rhonda the Honda’ – and put my hair in a messy bun. Sniffing the fresh-lemon infused, spring air, I headed East, towards City Park. The largest urban park in Denver, it’s something like 300-plus acres. On site, it has the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Denver Zoo, and a large boathouse that hosts summer concert series so outdoors-enthusiasts can catch evening rays before the stars arrive.

With a multitude of storms the prior week, the soil was damp, but I was not deterred.

citypark

I began one of the park’s loops, passing joggers, kickball competitors, and cyclists as I gabbed incessantly with Jordana, my spunky, loyal, and comrade best friend from Hendrix. For something like 8 years we have been friends, and so talking comes smooth and easy.

I was close to finishing my first lap around the inset of the park when I passed an elderly couple laughing with an openly friendly homeless man on a green park bench. I smiled, waved, and continued. Approximately 10 feet later, I stopped immediately in my tracks. Trailing backwards – literally – I told Jordana I would have to call her back. I had thought to myself, “wow, how nice for people to be talking, to be laughing, with anybody at the park,” when a quick, clear, and definite command came through my mind. You can do that too. So, I did. Like a rope pulling me backwards, it was a moment that I know had been impressed upon me, is this what the Holy Spirit feels like?

“Hi there, I’m Heather.”

“Well hello, I’m John.”

“I was just passing by…and I saw y’all talking…smiling…I just felt like I needed to come over and say hi.”

He chuckles. “I’m so glad you did.”
Something else then pressed upon me further.

“Will you be here for a bit? For maybe…another 20 minutes or so?”

“I certainly can be. I will be right here.”

“I, uh, I have some food in my car that I would like to share, if that would be okay. Can I go get it and bring it right back? I promise, I won’t be long.”

Smiles. “Of course, I’m just enjoying this beautiful day.”

*

More curious than anything, I’m sure he stayed because he just had to see what this random girl was up to. He was headed somewhere himself; the large black trash bag with clothes supported what he would later tell me – he was laundromat bound.

John, 51, Denver native with family in the Bayou, used to be in a gang, once suffered a broken heart from a woman who left him, and is a fierce believer in God.

“I am blessed. Blessed beyond belief. I wake up every morning alive. It’s enough. You never know what God has for you; any day that you have life you can encounter anyone, anything…I sit here, I see people, and I know with great certainty that we are all called to be disciples of Jesus. You – me – this is what can make your heart good.”

He shared more as I handed the torn box full of random perishables over.

His grin was gangly but inviting. He hardly looked a day over 40, but his response to questions of age was simple, “you reflect the heart within you – it doesn’t matter the number of years you have lived”. I wanted to start taking notes right then and there as he spouted words of wisdom that genuinely seemed to be intricately pulled from his value system, world-view, and life story.

I sat with John for an unexpected amount of time, right as evening was entering between the rippling green leaves from the calm breeze of early summer. Dog walkers and other aimless nomads meandered by and inevitably turned their necks to catch a glimpse and prove their suspicions correct; yes, that old homeless man on the city curbs of North Denver is hanging out with a young girl from the ‘burbs. It shouldn’t warrant a glance, you know.

In fact, the reason, I think, I even stopped myself was because the two people ahead of me paved the way. They treated John like a human being – like an equal – that he is, and in turn, I felt it on my heart to do so too.

It’s not about romanticizing or idealizing nice people. Especially nice people who are homeless. That’s a dangerous road. John would be the first to stake claim to the mistakes he has made. He told me them. And that’s the kind of brutal honesty I think we are missing in the world. It’s the kind of honesty that I crave, that I seek, and that I hope that as a community, we can become more cognizant of. Openly honest people; that I suggest is really what I was drawn towards in this situation. John remarked in the early parts of our conversation,

“You see, it makes me sad. Hearing in the news and seeing our city like this. Park Hill is my home. Yet, I was in a gang when I was younger too. I was young, I was stupid. People want to be here, in Denver. What an incredible place to be. But violence can destroy. Money destroys too. The sooner people realize that money does not hold the power they think it does, they can be free…the only gang you will ever need is the disciples you have in your faith.”

I nodded and remarked with a firm, “amen,” and he pressed further,

“Heather, keep that open heart of yours. I see many people on these paths. Many are hardened, shut off from the world and from life…keep your heart open. You will see what God has for you.”

I sighed, not out of irritation, but out of extraordinary humility, out of deep surprise. I had handed this man a box of some items, in return he sat with me for an hour, sharing his faith, his testimony, and exhorting me at the age of 26. I wasn’t expecting that. Before I left he said one more thing,

“You go and do good. Be bold, but be safe.”

When Jesus says, therefore go and make disciples of all nations he maintains the authority. So, to do this, we must not only act, but see. Speak, but listen. And when you see the world as it is in heaven, go there, celebrate, and embrace this life. He will always reveal this, always show this, and always promote this.

I want to be a part of a “church” (in a larger sense) that shares, intimately listens to stories, and is unafraid to care for people who are persecuted, shamed, and full of fear. And just because we are doing this, doesn’t mean we don’t admit our own shortcomings, weaknesses, and mistakes. But in Him, we are free. When living from this place, you will sense a deeper kind of love.

I no longer want to be afraid of where I have felt this deeper sense of community; where I have felt it calling me to. Because, surely, I am with you always, to the very end of age (Matthew 28:20).

*