hope.

“Nothing can stop me.” – Yvette*

Kayonza is a sleepy town in Eastern Rwanda, though it maintains a solid supply of milk and bananas, so long as the harvest is good and the cows are healthy.

IMG_1582Last week, I zipped on a motorcycle across the small town, towards the bus station.I passed the internet café that I spent hours at for correspondence when I lived without electricity. The old coffee shop I frequented is now re-constructed into a larger hotel development. It seems the only thing that has remained the same is the dinky ATM I withdrew cash from (when it worked) and the large cow statue in the middle of the town’s roundabout. This part of the Eastern Province is nothing special to most, but for me, every time I pass through, there is something that buzzes inside of me.

Last Friday, I meandered through the Kayonza bus park to find a ride to my nearby Peace Corps community. This is my fourth, possibly fifth, visit to my village since I completed my service at the end of 2013. I’m fortunate, blessed, and simultaneously, recognize the unique opportunity I have been given.  With each time that I do return, my neighbors exclaim proudly, “wibuka ni wacu” (you remembered us). I nod with gratitude, humbly agreeing that returning means a hell of a lot to people, no matter the background, culture, or geographic location.

I hop on a bruised, dented bus that is, quite literally, falling apart. The motor, it appears, will die at any moment, and there are at least three extra people stuffed inside. The man in front of me is holding two chickens. The driver is desperately smoking a cigarette. There are numerous older women grasping their walking sticks as we roll along the hills of our town.

Standard situation.

I shift my backpack so it does not hit against the person next to me. As I re-organize, I hear a meek, but enthusiastic call for “Heather!” I turn around and behind me, waving joyfully, is a student that I taught English during both years of my service. We shake hands, laughing, and I tell her that I’m on my way back – but first have plans to stop and pick up Yvette. I’m staying the weekend at her house and I can hardly wait to see her again. This student smiles and shouts, “Yego! Karibu teacher!” (Yes, welcome, teacher).

I take a deep breath as I call for the driver to pull off at my stop. He looks at me quizzically. I smile, and assure him, that yes, this is where I want to be. I am meeting Yvette at our main junction before we continue to her home where I will be spending the weekend.

The first thing I notice is her hair. My sweet Yvette, who I began teaching when she was 16, now has a thick, long, black weave in a multitude of braids. This is an outward sign of mobility; paying to have your hair done  is not a frequent occurrence where we lived. I let the braids fall through my fingers as I shout loudly, and with so much happiness, “Yesu we! My dear you have become mature. You are looking so smart.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. Yvette is 20 now, and she’s completing her student teaching at a school adjacent to the start of our long, dirt village road. She’s teaching nursery school students while taking courses on educational psychology and teaching methods. I literally could not be prouder.

I am visiting my community again, but things are different than visits in the past. My students are beyond their coming-of-age; they have either dropped out of school or graduated. Most, I learn, have not finished their secondary education, however. For the few that have, the reality of finding a job feels ominous in a rural community sustained through subsistence farming. Harnessing an income feels overwhelming without existing purchasing power or economic capacity. Now, instead of questions about how to finish school, the girls are asking questions about budgeting, planning, and thinking through exactly what they want as young women – not as students. This “new life” as one of my girls calls it, “is not easy.”

Yvette and I ride in unison on separate motorcycles to her family home. I pass through the banana trees, knowing that once again, I am home. I soar on my moto, it seems, hearing mixed shouts of “Julia” (the newest Peace Corps Volunteer in our village), “umuzungu” (white person), and “Impano” (my Kinyarwanda name). The older kids tend to know who I am; the younger ones are now using umuzungu. So goes the passing of time. I notice that the bananas, beans, and cassava have all died. It’s a stark sight to see; a plethora of plots, yet all with an empty harvest. I would find out later that it didn’t rain in this village from April to December last year. Hunger, scarcity of resources, and food security are now even larger, more pressing issues.

IMG_1555Yvette’s mother holds her hands high with kwishimira (praise to God) for my arrival. She hugs me tight and she smells of sweat, firewood, and soil. Her day has alternated between the land, the kitchen, and the road. Yvette’s  grandmother does the same. I smile because I realize that after all these years, I don’t even know Yvette’s grandmother’s name. Rather, I call her mukekuru (grandmother). That’s it. We share a moment and there is a glimmer of joy and appreciation that strikes me; I’m so happy to be back. Mukekeru jokes that she is still alive for my current visit. We giggle because the woman is now 85 years old. I jokingly tell her that she has at least six or seven years left, and snarkily, she tells me that she’ll stay alive until I come back with children. We laugh some more. Touché, mukekuru, touché.

It must be said: life in Rwanda is not easy. Perhaps for some, but not everyone. Life in Kigali can mask the deep divisiveness of inequity that persist in this country. I am unsure if I became numb to the hardness of this life over the years in which I stayed insulated inside the community. Perhaps my time living back in the United States tainted the hardness of what poverty in Rwanda is like. Either way, what I saw in just the first few hours of my return was intense. It shocked me. It awoke me, once again, to the raw realities of deep, deep poverty. It was painful, but also necessary.

Yvette and I left her cemented house before dusk to go and search for a couple of beers for her family. My return, they said, warranted a celebration. As we roamed the village terrain, we stopped by her aunt’s house to say “hello.” As we did, she confronted Yvette with news of an intense infection growing on her foot. Her leg was swelling, she couldn’t walk, and I could hardly believe what I saw was real. It was night by then, and so Yvette used her phone light to examine the injury further. My stomach dropped; I knew immediately that this woman urgently needed to go and get medication and treatment. Otherwise, she would lose her leg.

We left, and instantly, I felt sick. As we entered a small center of shops and bars, I began to see old friends, old neighbors, and old church members. They greeted me, smiled, and continued to proclaim, “uri inkumi” (“you have become a woman”). Considering that just a couple of months ago I had my age checked while seeing an R-rated movie in Denver, this strikes me as wonderfully reassuring.Yvette briefed me on more news from the community.

She pointed to house after house, noting that various young girls that I used to teach have gotten pregnant and are now mothers. The climate has also been harsh and food has been inadequate. Theft has increased, and a feeling of distrust has grown. She reports that her mother, aunt, and uncle have all had thieves steal crops, food, and pots from their homes.

When we arrived back at her house, I stopped and gazed at the sky. My overwhelming feelings of melancholy seem to subside for a moment. The stars are ominous, beautiful, and vast. I said a quick prayer, asking that God would reveal Himself in this place. And that for myself, and for this family, we would remember that God is  still so present through all of this.

We ate dinner together in the dark. Yvette and I talked for three hours about what she has learnt at school and why she believes so passionately in education. As she spoke, with sauce dripping from her mouth in extraordinary excitement, I became suddenly, swiftly, and deeply moved at how much investing in one life can make a difference. I can’t always answer big questions of poverty, inaccessibility, or oppression, but I can be assured that there are bright spots everywhere. Yvette is one of them. She passionately remarks, “the two things I must always remember: a good future and self-confidence.”

Late into the night, she openly shared about other things too; things like politics, social movements, and her past. I was amazed at how well-informed she was – especially about the growing activism in the United States. She admitted that she cried when Donald Trump won the election. When I asked why, she said simply, “I can’t imagine a leader acting or talking like that. It made me sad for America.”

Enough said.

I woke up to a rooster crowing. Already, at 6:00am, Yvette’s mother was cooking tea. I stretched my legs and visited the latrine for a bathroom visit. I used to be an expert at using these things, but with passing time, my squatting abilities have faltered. Let’s just say it was a bit messy. As we say in Rwanda, bibaho (it happens).

As we waited for the sun to climb in the sky, we sipped tea and looked at photos of my niece, AnaLynah. Mukekuru is obsessed, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the lovely photographs. She was quick to remind me, again, that I must come back with children.

When we share a mid-morning snack of ubugali (cassava bread) and potatoes with sauce,Yvette’s mom prayed over the food. She commented sheepishly that she had “nothing to give me.” This broke every piece of my heart. I assure her – I don’t need or want anything. Just love, and only love. As we ate,Yvette asks, “Heather, when we tell you that you are a blessing to us, you keep telling us that we have been a blessing to you. How?”

I blinked slowly and scrambled to find the right, adequate words.

You’ve given me friendship. Community. A place to come back to. Purpose. All of you girls have motivated me to know what is important in life. If God gives me the opportunity to support others, I must take it. And, with all of you, you have demonstrated what it looks like to be welcoming and loving to anyone.”

We walked dusty trails in the western part of the sector, towards Liza’s* house. When I saw her, I gasped, amazed at how “grown” she has become. Liza detailed what it felt like to finish her schooling. She talked at length about representing her school at a national debate, and how she overcame her fear of pursuing her coursework in the sciences. She wants to go to university, but she doesn’t know how to proceed. The national government will announce scholarships in the coming months, and if she doesn’t receive one, she can’t continue. We prayed about this together, in her small, musty living room.

We also visited Yvette’s uncle, all with more food and more questions. Families often ask. “where is your husband?” and now, being in a very happy relationship with my girlfriend, I feel stuck in knowing what to answer. I can’t tell them the truth, and I also hate to lie. I feel in a different kind of a “closet” than I did before, and this is stressful. I get flustered and simply reply with a coyness, “God will give His answer.” This seems to be enough, at least for now.

The hard part of coming back, I realize, is that my new life doesn’t easily integrate with the old. I must grieve this and be patient with this, too.

One of the hardest part moments of my trip was seeing a baby with a disability going untreated. One of Yvette’s family members brought this baby to the house. I assumed the child was only two or three weeks from its birth. When I realized it’s actual age (9 months!) Yvette’s mom unwrapped the child from a small, blue blanket. As I tenderly held the small, floppy limbs in my hands, I fully grasped the limitations in each part of its body for this little one.

The child went to a hospital, but was referred to a specialty clinic. Because of transport fees, the family hasn’t yet gone. With urgency, I insisted that they must go soon. If the baby can access some physical therapy, the body can still develop some muscle strength. I excuse myself to the latrine, again, but not because I need to relieve myself.

I stand on the wooden logs, with tears in my eyes, unsure of what to do. Why God, why God, does this happen?

On the final day of my visit, I met the current Peace Corps Volunteer, Julia, who is simply, a gem. She’s connected strongly with Yvette, and her family too, and we share stories about teaching and what it’s like to live inside of this part of Rwanda. We walk to her home together, and I squeal in delight when I see my timeworn painted walls of turquoise. My old home looks largely the same, and with all the other stressors I experienced, this was comforting.

IMG_1586Yvette and I walked the five kilometers out of the village so I could soak the place up as much as possible. I was sad to go our separate ways, but we quickly made plans for her to visit the bakery in Kigali the following weekend. I thank her for all that she has given and shared with me. I thank her for being her. She shyly thanks me too, and she goes.

Then, like magic, I’m back on a bus, surrounded by colorful fabrics, women with babies, and bible-carrying men, to return to my current life. It feels like I took a step out of time and went somewhere else. I’m processing these experiences, people, and stories still, and it’s challenging.

It’s hard to reconcile our lives with one another sometimes. However, even in the difficulty, it’s a worthy process. I’m learning a lot from this visit, feeling affirmed in my work, and considering what it means to resist, persist, and keep going no matter what. I am thinking about those kinds of things, mostly, because more than anything, that’s what I want for my girls, my loved ones, myself, and my children one day: that is, to hold both the joyous and heart-breaking pieces of life together, knowing that life is neither one or the other. It is both. Always, both.

IMG_1594

My community, my village, my home always serves as a benchmark for a part of my life that allowed me to understand and know a bigger picture in this world. Life can be immensely difficult for all of us, as we each face unique challenges. I can’t move forward and forget these things. Instead, we are called to hone what we can and advocate for each other, wherever our gaps may be. We all have them. But, we can all help one another, too.

I don’t know what to do about what I saw: the paucity of food; the lack of education; the scarceness of jobs; the propensity of medical issues; there is just so much. Too much.

But, I am assured, knowing that I can continue to stand with my girls, with Yvette, believing that opportunity does provide the most valuable kind of a return on investment: HOPE.

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of these stories and the individuals involved. 

loving radically: a state of emergency

take this fainted heart, take these tainted hands, wash me in Your love, come like grace again : even when my strength is lost, i’ll praise You. even when i have no sun, i’ll praise You. even when it’s hard to find the words –

i will always sing Your praise. 

Even When It Hurts, Hillsong United

Philadelphia, Mississippi, January 2008

Her fray, wrinkly body, capped by thick, black hair with a slight gray hue, stood at the forefront of the altar, gazing to the scattered rows of pews in front of her. We filled those pews – or at least 4 rows of them – in the back. Other congregants had come and gathered to hear this old, but mighty old woman speak. Like honey glazed with just enough sugar, her voice was quiet, sweet, but clear.

In this rural, strongly Southern chapel, at a mere 19 years of age, I heard a story that changed my life.

HPIM2669

This woman – her name has since escaped me (though, I am confident it’s inscribed in one of many journals I keep) told her story from the 1960’s. I’m sure she shared about her upbringing too, but it was her experience during a KKK attack on her church that sticks with me – even today. “Mississippi Burning” with Gene Hackman is a film that is loosely based on the event; essentially, three civil rights activists were mobilizing African-Americans in the South to be come enfranchised so they could vote during ‘Freedom Summer’ in 1964. At Mt. Zion – this particular church – the activists had spoken and inspired members of the church. When the KKK caught wind of this kind of activity, the church was set on fire, burned, and destroyed.

I remember two things from her shaky yet poignant words; the intensity of the fire, and the even stronger intensity in her love of God. God – not policies, not preferences, not politics – drove her to forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately, love. She forgave the KKK, the people who burned her church, the very system that desegregated, humiliated, and dehumanized her. Testimony is powerful, and I don’t remember ever hearing something quite so moving.
*

Kayonza, Rwanda, July 2012

I cooked 20 helpings of bananas, beans, and macaroni on one particular sleepy Sunday. I knew visitors would be coming – and thought I only expected around 8 people, something deeper kept tugging at me. Cook more. So I did. On that dinky charcoal stove, I cooked for at least three hours. Sweaty, smoky, and smelly, I shared with neighbors who had said they would be dropping by. We fellowshipped, shared food, and sipped coffee on my low-lying coffee table ad my beloved mat. We ate over my school-turned-home furniture and all in all, it was rather quaint. As the day drew further into the late sunny afternoon, I heard incessant knocking on my front tin gate. As I creaked it open, I glimpsed and saw two middle-aged women in pink, yellow, and blue African fabrics, holding 20 lbs. worth of stuff on their head. They spoke French. I did not. Naturally, I invited them inside.

My colleague, who just happened to be visiting at the right time, could communicate in the Francophone language and so while I poured warm drinks and gathered plates for food, he filled me in on the smaller albeit important details. Refugees for 8 years with no home to speak of, they were searching for resources outside the camp. Somehow, they had stumbled in from the outer-laying valleys and into the hills of Ruramira. How they found my house? I’ll never quite know. But, I did know that I had cooked enough food and when I passed their portions, they mumbled a small “God Bless You” and nibbled slowly but with gusto.

My heart broke that day. Overwhelmed, I couldn’t possibly understand how in a foreign land I had managed to find a home and yet these women could not. It seemed unfair. I knew I could only handle what was in front of me, and my concern was to maintain an open door, a heart full of love, and the food – as long as it was made available.

I never had to reconcile my hesitations or questions that came with allowing strangers in my home. Not once. In fact, it was second nature in the moment; it kind of, sort of, well, just happened. It was an important lesson about reconciliation.
*

My short time in Philadelphia, Mississippi taught me that reconciliation is unexpected. In Rwanda, I learned it was a life style. A choice, even. Even more, a gift that we either choose to embrace or hastily cast aside.

These are two stories. They are two – of so, so many. I’ve been fortunate to see the intricate weaving of God’s love in and out of my life in the course of 26 (almost 27) years. It’s no accident; God has demonstrated time and time again (and still again) that His love is of the radical kind; it doesn’t make sense, it transcends boundaries, and it’s the only thing I can trust. I have witnessed it in my family; I have lived within it while engaging in Rwandan village life; I have found it’s riches in my own brokenness; and I have been soulfully drawn to it as I’ve grown closer to God. His love is unexpected, surprising, un-ending, boundary-less, and unpredictable.

Yet, I’m alarmed. We (this world) have entered a state of emergency and I haven’t known how to say what I want to say or share what I want to share. I was content to say nothing until the two stories grazed my heart while on a run through the city recently and I felt compelled to scream at the top of my lungs that, yes, GOD WINS. Scream, because a quick glance into the rants, complaints, and proclamations on facebook and the media show me a world guided by fear and hate. Fear and hate. 

We have terrorism besieging Paris; criminals ruling Beirut; signs of Genocide in Burundi; and people, (ahem, largely Christians!) are standing firm in their own self-effacing ideologies and shouting, “No! We can’t accept you!” It makes me sad. What kind of gospel is that? If God has reigned victorious in our lives then we ought to know the depths of grace and the weight of mercy. And for people crying out, in need, and truly burdened, how can we possibly close the door in their face?

My question is quite simple:

What, exactly, are we so afraid of?

Even if ISIS, or evil itself came knocking, don’t we trust enough in the power, sovereignty, and love of God to protect us? Have we really given Him everything? Because before I am anything, I am with Him. I am a child of God. That is my identity. I refuse to embrace anything else. That’s why I am speaking about God at all in all of this madness; for me, this is not political, it’s not ideological, and it’s not about taking sides. It’s about loving when it really hurts. When it’s hard. When maybe, we just don’t want to.

Why does that matter?

It matters because before being Republican or Democrat, man or woman, young or old, educated or illiterate, or American citizen or not, I am with God. My loyalties are with God, above all else, and no matter how many times I flip the Bible in, out, and around, one thing above all else is clear – Love God, Love Others, and DO NOT FEAR.

It matters because in a lot of ways, we are all refugees. We are all searching for home, belonging, and identity. When you find it, you realize how precious that treasure is. God’s love is kind of like that. It matters, because there are people in the world seeking love, seeking peace, and seeking solace. They are hungry, beaten, suffering, and in need. Why wouldn’t we be moved so much by our hearts (and by the gospel) that we knew that something should be done?

And granted, we are messier, sloppier, and human. So, we’re going to mess it up. It’s easy to talk about love, but hell, it’s a lot harder to do. I struggle with this a lot. Sometimes, crazy enough, it’s hardest of all to love the people we know we should love. But that’s just it; the life of Jesus demonstrated what love without boundaries was like. He is our precedent, and I see no other way but to follow.

I don’t know how to respond to everything in all these really uncomfortable, uncertain, and painful times. But I knew that today I needed to declare my allegiance to God; mindfully aware that my theology, research, studies, opinions, and formulations will amount to nothing but a grain of sand to what God is offering to the world. He brings His heart – and as far as I am concerned, that’s the only the thing that matters.

Begin to see how God radically loved you, and in turn, you might see how we can radically love others. That is what our world needs more than anything else right now.

May this be a time of opening – not closing – a time to reconsider our misconceptions, a time to look deeper into our hearts, challenging ourselves to probe the deeper side of love. May we draw near truth, and express a desire to be united – not broken – by the evil that knocks, threatens, steals, kills, and destroys.

God wins. So does love.

“Gospel change is the Spirit of God using the story of God to make the beauty of God come alive in our hearts…Religion, then, can tell you what to do—namely, to “love God with all your heart, soul and mind” and “to love your neighbor as yourself”; but the gospel alone gives you the power to do it.”
J.D. Greear, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

1 John 4:7

*

 

 

Aurora: the natural light

An aurora is a natural light display in the sky (from the Latin word aurora, “sunrise” or the Roman goddess of dawn), predominantly seen in the high latitude (Arctic and Antarctic) regions.

Aurora, Colorado, 2009

*

I have been reading through my old angsty college-aged journal entries and I have found frequent musings regarding the concept of place.

It was an important topic to me at the time. Especially as I was traveling, engaging with other places in the country and the world, I couldn’t help but consider the place I had come from.

I loaded up in buses with my hockey teammates all over the South and Midwest; took mission trips to the Delta; traveled globally; and even wrote my senior thesis about the idea of “place” in urban areas (focusing in New Orleans) and how poverty affected geographic boundaries and youth development.

It was fascinating to me.

However, I can’t help but think, girl. How little you actually knew.

While I appreciated my place of origin – beautiful Colorado – I wrote about how my neighborhoods, high school, and community as if it lacked any form of diversity or difference. I acted as if I had grown up in a suburban-snooze, with no sense of culture.

Aurora, I would write, as if I was lamenting about some pre-described, orderly white-picketed fence safe haven.

In a way, I might have been right. Yet, mostly, I just didn’t know. I didn’t have the eyes to see. I didn’t have the experience or the tools or even the resources to know where I could find the very thing I yearned for: difference.

*

John Lewis writes,

We must not turn away from one another. We must not retreat into separate tribes of like-minded, like-looking people who worship the same God, wear the same clothes, read the same books and eat the same food as one another. This is the way of exclusion, not inclusion. We cannot afford going this way. If we are to survive as a society, as a nation, we must turn toward one another and reach out in every way we can. It is not a choice; it is a necessity. We need to listen to one another, to look, to open our minds as well as our hearts.  (Walking with the Wind, 1998)

John Lewis is a Congressman in Georgia and a major leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. His call for unity – especially as I heard him speak at a conference in North Carolina my sophomore year of college – pushed me to think, what can I do to SEEK and ENGAGE that which is different?

*

This planted a seed that grew into a journey that has become a passion. And now, it’s brought me back home.

So, when I read those old journal entries, frustrated that I couldn’t find what was “different” in Aurora, I literally LAUGH.

On paper, Aurora has demographics that are sometimes surprising for typical suburban areas. The latest census reports that over 61% of the population is white, 15.7% is African-American, nearly 5% is Asian, almost 29% of any listed race is Hispanic or Latino, and a great deal of other racial categories are listed as well. It’s quite diverse.

My dad moved to a neighborhood on the border between North Aurora and Denver that has Russians, Burmese, Somali, and Mexicans in a variety of neighborhoods. Immigrants and refugees don’t only exist within his community lines, he teaches these very students at the academically successful Overland High School. He’s been doing this for nearly 27 years.

More than just race, Aurora was actually the first city in the United States to have a female mayor when Norma Walker took over in 1965.

Someone reminded me that it was Cherry Creek Park, back in the early 90’s that World Youth Day was hosted. I was too young to remember, but apparently hundreds of thousands of people went, including Pope John Paul II.

The Broncos Practice Facility is arguably located in Aurora too. Well, okay, it’s not. It’s technically located in Englewood, but I would like to note that it’s only a hop-skip away from the Aurora border-line.

Since I’ve come back to the Aurora area it’s been freakishly easy to appreciate.

I have started attending church at Colorado Community Church in the heart of Aurora; this is a place of worship and friendship and fellowship that’s allowed me to make friends 10, 20, or 30 years older than me. I have discovered kinship in a Ugandan friend here, I have been honored to take part in a community group every Sunday that has people from all walks of life. My Sunday family breaks bread together just as we are; whether we have Cerebral Palsy, struggle with finances, or have started a new family.

Along Colfax Avenue, I have visited Rwandans, eaten at legitimate Moroccan eateries, and have seen construction of the planned unveiling of “the African Mall” – an urban development for a one-stop shop for African food, markets, shopping, and culture. NPR ran an interesting story about these cultural developments that can be read and listened to by clicking the link below:

Aurora’s Ethnic Richess

I have ran on the nature trails out by my mom’s new home in South Aurora, near “Southlands”. Even in the midst of suburban sprawl, it’s immensely beautiful. There’s a bit of country left out by their home – adjacent to a super-mall, believe it or not – and I remember thinking, what a wonderful place to live.

There’s all kinds of food, frozen yogurt shops, malls, and coffee shops. A new one that I tried last week – where I happened to meet a new Cameroonian friend for coffee – was established by an Israeli.

It’s not like diversity can only be fueled by color, race, or place of origin. I’m seeing diversity in other things too. There’s a lot to do; you can run, swim, climb mountains, join a fitness club, start cross-fit, go to museums, peruse libraries, shop in local boutiques or massive chain stores, and learn how to paint, or attend your choice of wine tastings & bars. People got stories here. It’s just about finding them.

Aurora has both Democrats & Republicans.

Aurora has a mix of schools, churches, and organizations to boot. On the way to my high school alma mater I can pass the booming cross of the Catholic house of worship and a few miles North would see several buildings for the Korean Christian Church. The Adventists once built a church in just under a week right by Parker & Arapahoe. Impressive.

Aurora is very, very different. When I thought otherwise, I had the classic case of “blinders”. More than that, I simply did not know how to look for that kind of thing.

*

Apparently, I needed to leave, see the world, and come back to see all that’s happening in my little hometown.

And “little” ain’t the case; the town is its own rightful entity outside of Denver – having nearly half the number of the major city’s residents (over 300,000).

Besides the “All-America City” signs I see around town, my grandma – who has worked for the city for over 10 years in the municipal court – tells me that Aurora is also considered the “gateway to the Rockies” or the “sunshine of Colorado”.

What a completely appropriate name for what Aurora means anyway.

It’s been the light showing me the right direction all of these years and I just couldn’t see it most of the time. Aurora is a great city. Never more have I appreciated this place. It’s ironic now that I’m a Centennial resident, but let’s be real, a large chunk of my time is back in what is lovingly called “A-Town.”

As the world is in up in arms over cyber war-fare, and our country is exposing areas of existing racial tension, it’s more and more clear to me that we must heed to what John Lewis advises in his wisdom above. Inclusion.

If Aurora can do this, it will continue to be that light that it has its namesake from. I encourage you, whether you live in Aurora, in Denver, in Texas, in New York, or somewhere entirely outside the country, to purposefully seek what you do no know. Find what is unfamiliar. When you do, you’ll be surprised at the things you will learn. The process has proved true for me – and it’s been about the very place I was raised and grew up as a young girl. The world really can surprise us.

*

“love more laugh more judge less”

I parked past a back alley in the pub’s space for cars a couple blocks off of Lafayette Street. The intersection is Colfax, historically and notably the part of town full of sleazy dive bars, trouble, and cheap motels that people get for Lord knows what.

When the front door shut behind me and the bell rang, I asked the nearest cocktail server where I might find the group I had come to meet.

“Ma’am, where might I find the After Hours group?”

“Oh – that’s downstairs, hon.”

One wooden step at a time, I slithered against an empty dining room and continued towards the sound of laughter and loud voices. I glanced about 20 yards off to the left and around 20 people were scattered in a small corner of the bar. Maybe it’s them?

I started to see a few of them paying their bar tabs and that the tall glasses of Colorado’s delicious craft beer were nearly empty. I stumbled a moment while I looked at my black sports watch on my left wrist and thought, dangit. Forgot to wear that thing today. What time was it?

I approached two older men and a middle-aged woman and introduced myself.

“Hi there, is this After Hours?

“Oh you sweet thing! Yes this is it,” the older woman excitedly yelled. In that moment she also saw my hands full of three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It happened to be the day that instead of making sandwiches together, each person brings a couple to donate for the following day’s distribution. This woman sure ain’t Southern but she saw those things and before taking them exclaimed, “bless your heart, sweetie.”

She hugged me too and I was like woah. What’s going on?

Turns out, I read this week’s online posting wrong – on days we meet at the Irish Snug (this particular pub), we start at 6:30pm, not 8:00 like other weeks. Oops.

*

I heard about After Hours here: After Hours Denver

Well, really, the link came from my dear friend Michelle who heard about it and thought it might be something I would like to check out and maybe be a part of.

After Hours is spear-headed by Pastor Jerry and a group of people who embrace God’s love in whatever form that might look like. Rotating every Monday, the group meets at different Denver bars to put together sandwiches for distribution in the homeless community but also to discuss God’s word and hear a sermon every couple of weeks. Read carefully: this happens in a bar. This group believes in trying to explore God in a different, unique way, welcoming all who come. Anyone who walks in the door is welcome.

I saw a little bit of everything. Homeless men, young professionals, people of both sexual orientations, government officials, people all over the spectrum. I stood at a small round table after being introduced to the group and talked to an ex-parole officer, an environmentalist, and a homeless man about the great need for water in our country. And the origination of the “Cornish Pasty” (no, not pastry). Evidently this is totally a mid-west thing (at least in Indiana) so I just sat back and listened. Because I was so late, I missed the sermon, but I stuck around for over an hour for some pretty open and fluid and random conversation.

I was told later in the evening that Pastor Jerry’s sermon was focused on racism, abuzz like most of America post-Ferguson.

What I noticed quickly was that no one’s physical or societal classification seemed to matter. I was only present for a short time but first impressions do carry a lot of weight.

The Pastor slipped me his card as we started to exit and head back upstairs to the cool air of a slow-ending summer. It was in the shape of coaster, colored in scarlet red, and with yellow writing it said,

“Love more laugh more judge less.”

Chances are, I’ll be back. Hopefully on time.

*

what will you do to remember?

About 6 months ago, a short time before I was set to leave Rwanda, Divine and I spent a couple of hours at the Kigali Memorial Center. This is a memorial in Gisozi, a short ride away from the heart of the city, where over 200,00 Rwandans have been laid to rest as a result of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.

539620_397163197061107_1738962184_n

stained glass art in the memorial representing life and death.

I had been to this memorial three times prior – within my first month of arriving in the country, on a visit with my mother, and on a visit with my father. This fourth time was slightly different – it was just Divine and I. I had never been with only a Rwandan.

I gave her a lot of space to try and process what she was seeing, feeling, and experiencing. We said very little as we trudged through the historical explanations, the rows of old, crushed skulls from machetes, and the blood-stained clothes kept safe within glass boxes. They showed a picture of an old Catholic church, not far from where Divine lives, where a major massacre had taken place. This place is called Nyarabuye.

I could see her eyes get heavy and her body get tired. This was a lot to handle. She’s 20 and was a young child in 1994, but like anyone in Rwanda, she was affected in some kind of way. She spent the first part of her young life in a forest, weaving in and out of Tanzania – she was even born there. She knows survivors, perpetrators, and people in between. And when she tried telling me some of these things, it was clear that I could never understand. Most of all, especially after we saw the memorial, Divine was concerned that if I knew some her story – and the stories of others – I would tell people back in America and it could bring back “trouble”. I reassured her; her story is sacred with me and ultimately, I can never have any claim to even the smallest experience that so many Rwandans went through – on both sides.

So, when it comes to reflecting during April, as it always is at this time of the year, it’s hard to know what to think or what to say. This year, I’m not in Rwanda. But, I  am speaking with my friends back in the country and asking about Kwibuka – literally translated as “to remember” – and what they are doing to reflect on the 20 year anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide.

You know, they ask me too.

They say, “teacher. What will you do on Monday to remember?”

I pause.

And I sigh deeply and tell them,

“I’m going to tell people about Rwanda. About what I know. About what I learned. And about the time to remember for everyone in Rwanda. It is important to share.”

They tell me, “Super. You must tell them. You must also tell them that Rwanda is a strong country.”

“I will.”

75314_10151628458738902_983673965_n

*

Below are some links that I have enjoyed reading. Additionally, I have added 3 videos that are important rememberance songs for a lot of people in the country. Right now, for the month of April, the only music that is supposed to be played is rememberance music and so this is the kind of stuff you would be hearing on the radios currently. The first song I will post, “Ijoro Ribara Uwariraye” is one of the most beautiful songs I heard in April and it’s particularly stirring and moving. I hope this helps you learn a little more and reflect on how precious humanity really is.

*

Six Lessons To Remember

Rwanda Genocide Anniversary