When a Spade Is Not a Spade

Some time this summer, when I was in the US for meetings and briefly stopped by a friend’s home, I helped in her garden. Gardening is something I miss here in Thailand, and I jumped at the opportunity to get my hands in the soil.

“Would you mind getting me a spade?” my friend asked. I happily complied, coming back with what I thought was a spade.

“That’s not a spade,” my friend smiled. “That’s a shovel. The spades are next to the shovels. Remember the Grant Wood painting, American Gothic?” she asked. “That‘s a spade.”

“I thought that’s a pitchfork,” I said, but didn’t want to argue the point.


That might be the problem with calling a spade a spade, I thought as I walked to the shed. What you call a spade, I call something entirely different.

Since English is my second language, plus since I’m from a country where we speak more of the Queen’s version of what we all call English, I simply assumed that either I was wrong, or that it was another cultural difference, like how we call an eraser a rubber. (I learned long ago to just call it an eraser, in case you are envisioning terribly embarrassing situations.)

Not that I’ve not had moments of extreme embarrassment when it comes to language bloopers, the best probably being the time I was an exchange student and kindly asked my host dad at dinner table to knock me up the next morning at 5. “What exactly do you want dad to do, Adele?” my host mom asked while my host brother and sisters were literally rolling on the floor laughing and my host dad was probably trying to do the Heimlich on himself from having inhaled his last bite of dinner. “Ummm, knock on the door to wake me up?” 18-year-old me replied, completely oblivious of what I had just asked my host dad to do.

Back to the spade, though. I was busy gardening, and I wasn’t going to pull up a dictionary app to look up the real meaning of spade. But tonight I finally did… I’ll find a good time to point out to my friend that it was not an American vs. English issue. She was wrong. I did have a spade. What she should’ve asked for was a pitchfork. (The language correction is done in good spirits, both ways, in case you wonder about the joy I seem to find in anticipating telling my monolingual friend that she doesn’t know her own language.)

My point is not that we make language bloopers. My point is that we can sometimes be completely convinced of a fact about our own culture or about our host culture, and we might be completely wrong. We might think we’re calling a spade a spade, and may even fight tooth and nail to defend what we believe is true, only to find out that we were wrong.

That’s why we need cultural informants whom we can turn to, or friends who can lovingly correct us. That’s why we need to give people permission to help us if we’re wrong, ’cause wrong we will be, more often than we’d care to admit.

We may have even held on to some theological convictions for all time that may be completely off, but we refuse to be open to the Holy Spirit helping us see something in a new light. And that’s why we need to ask God to lovingly help us see the Truth as he intended it, not as it’s been filtered through culture and theologians over time.

How about you? Have you had a wrong impression, whether of your host culture, an incorrect interpretation of something from your own culture, or a theological conviction that you’ve changed your mind on?


Adele Booysen works in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and the US,
and often has to eat humble pie as she adjusts from one culture and one language to another.


Truth, Courage and Vulnerability

“This week,” I recently told the 25 students in the online class I had been teaching for BGU, “I want you to engage with someone who is different from you. Ask them questions so that you can understand more, not to interrogate them. Seek to understand their worldview. Your assignment is to journal about what you learned from them.”

The class was called “Globalization and Cross-Cultural Engagement,” and I had no idea the assignment would be so profound for many of the students. One got together with a Hindu colleague and asked questions about the Hindu faith. Another sat down for an enlightening conversation with a transvestite friend of his daughter’s. One student addressed faith for the first time in more than 20 years with her sister who had walked away from the church years ago.

One student after another confessed to it being the first time they truly tried to understand while withholding judgment, and without seeing to convince the other person of how wrong they were. And several students reported that there has been a shift in their relationships in the cases where they interviewed someone they had an existing relationship.

Listening to the other person ushered in a sense of trust, which opened the door to being vulnerable and speaking truth.

Dr. Brené Brown (whose TedTalk has been viewed more than a million times and is worth watching again, even if you’ve seen it before) recently published a new book called Daring Greatly. In it, Brown says,

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

If you’ve listened to that famous TedTalk, you might remember Dr. Brown referring to her study on shame, explaining, “Shame is … the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” To overcome that fear, she says, takes “excruciating vulnerability.”

So, here are my challenges to you:

  1. Would you seek ways in which you can become a safe place for others to share their hearts, even if their worldview differs vastly from yours? Would you take on the challVulnerabilityenge I gave my students and interact with people who might be different from you, and simply seek to understand rather than to change them?
  2. And would you ask God in which ways you may need to be courageous enough to be vulnerable and share something with a friend, or with a spouse, or with your child, something you’ve been too afraid to share? (Having prayerfully taken on this challenge myself, I can testify that this may be hard, but it may lead to greater depth and greater trust in that relationship.)

If you’re willing to take on one of these challenges (or both), would you mind writing a simple comment saying you’ll do it (without sharing details, unless it’s to share the response to the first challenge).

I pray that this exercise in truth, courage and vulnerability will till the soil for richer, deeper relationships.

Adéle Booysen works for Compassion International
and usually calls Chiang Mai, Thailand “home.”

The Joys and Pains of Making New Friends

Last November, I wrote a post about finding community, pointing to the danger of relying mostly on a virtual world and not connecting well with people around you. But saying, “Find community,” is almost like simply saying, “Lose weight” without sharing ideas on how to go about doing so.

In real life—or perhaps I should say, in life back in our home culture?—making friends is often uncomplicated. But when you’re living overseas—or, when you’re returning home after living overseas—making friends can be a bit lot more tricky. (Of course, being a global citizen, I realize the term home conjures up much confusion for many of us.)

Nevertheless, despite the risk of oversimplifying, here are some thoughts on ways to find community, realizing that your environment, your personality, your culture and your host culture are all factors that play a role insofar as what will work and what won’t. Here are some thoughts about what’s worked for me, and some thoughts about the joys and the pains of making new friends.

Whitewater rafting with friends on Java, Indonesia: Making new friends can be a scary yet very rewarding experience

Today, I feel like my heart’s been put through a wringer. Two weeks ago, I was in Bangladesh, participating in an emerging leader training camp. Once I got back to Thailand, a colleague arrived for a week worth on intensive training, site visits, meetings, and more meetings. All of the above was very good, and I can still indubitably say, “I love my job.”

Last night, though, after I had dropped off my colleague, I went to dinner at the home of dear, dear friends. I smiled as I walked into their house, the aroma of a dinner prepared with love filling the air. My friend Becky wasn’t home at that moment. She was taking their dog for a walk. Still, I walked in and set the dinner table, simply because that’s what good friends do. And then I curled up in a chair in their living room and took a nap till everyone was at home and we visited about our day.

All was OK till after dinner, when I helped Becky take photos of furniture. See, they’re moving back to the US this summer, and they’re getting ready to sell some furniture. Suddenly, their leaving became a painful reality that stabbed and simply wouldn’t stop hurting. I realize that the pain is exacerbated by me being tired. But it doesn’t change the fact that I am saddened by the fact that my dear friends are leaving, that I’m not just losing one friend, but I’m losing family.

It’s not that I’ve not gone through transition before. In the past 20 years alone, I have lived in more than 10 different cities and in 6 different countries. I’m no stranger to good-byes. But for many of those moves, I was the one leaving, and I had gotten good at guarding my heart.

This time around, I’m staying, watching as my friends are packing up their world bit by bit, selling stuff, preparing for the uncertain transition, and I know that though we’ll remain friends, much will inevitably change.

Here’s the deal, though: When I first met these friends a short few months ago, I knew they were leaving. I could have played it safe and chosen to protect my heart and not accepted a hand of friendship. But I didn’t. Nor did Becky play it safe and opt not to forge a new friendship so soon before having to wrap up many years of living in Thailand.

Does it hurt to know that Becky and her family are leaving soon? More than I care to admit. If I could start over and avert the pain of loss, would I choose not to befriend Becky and her family? Not for a moment! I’d be poorer for it. In that sense, I have to agree with one of my favorite philosophers, Winnie the Pooh, who said,

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.

It’s also not that I don’t have other friends in town. I’m blessed that I have several other friends, though none of my other friends here represent what Becky’s family represents for me as a single person: Theirs is a home away from home away from home.

Nor is it that I won’t be able to make new friends, or deepen existing relationships. But I realize that it is a rare gift to be such good friends with an entire family.

Floating on a lake with friends from church: Jamie, me, Becky, Holli and Sandra

And so, tonight, as a reminder to myself and perhaps an incentive for one or two of you, I’ll list a few ways in which I was able to find community in the past. Here’s what’s worked for me over the years of living abroad:

  • Years ago in Taiwan, when I realized that my circle of friends included hardly anyone outside my work world, let alone outside my circle of faith, I joined a choir where I was challenged in so many ways: musically, linguistically, socially and spiritually. Several years later, when I moved back to Taiwan after time in the US and Kenya, I was welcomed right back and started building new relationships among my choir friends. (Ironically, some of my non-Christian friends were much more instrumental in my return adjustment than Christian friends were. But that’s another topic all by itself!) To be sure, I didn’t expect my non-Christian friends to meet my need for spiritual community. What they did do, though, was leave me with amazing memories of making incredible music to God’s glory—even though they saw it merely as culture.
  • Ironically, making close friends in the US was hard in California, yet very easy in Iowa (where I did support raising). Perhaps that would be my advice for moving to the US then: Move to the Midwest! 😉
  • In Kenya, finding community looked differently yet again. At a stage during my three years in Kenya, I moved to a different village in order to be closer to a few friends with whom I could share some cultural commonalities. It is in the village that I learned the importance of having friends who share more than created and learned common bonds.
  • In Indonesia, where I worked at an international school where I was one of very few Christian teachers, I had good friends at school. But since I knew I also needed a faith community in order to thrive, I chose to attend a women’s retreat to get to know other Christian women. May I add that I don’t particularly like women’s church camps? At that camp, though, I made amazing friends with whom I’m still in touch.
  • After moving to Thailand, I tried the same route of attending an interdenominational church camp. This time around, it didn’t work for me at all! I didn’t make any new friends at camp. In Thailand, finding community has worked differently yet again.
  • In Chiang Mai, making friends at first happened as a result of accepting an invitation to a Thai small group even through I understood no Thai yet. In the process, however, I got to know some precious Thai friends.
  • And while our new Compassion office was not yet open and I got to work from home, I chose to leave home daily and work from a coffee shop instead. Though I like variety and like exploring new places, I chose to keep going to the same coffee shop every day so I could get to know the names of the staff, and so someone would smile back when they recognized me.
  • Another key to finding friends came by way of the church where I chose to worship. Rather than visiting several churches in town, trying to find a place that felt just right, I opted to chose between two options only, and soon started going to just one church, even though I knew no-one there. There, I tried out various Bible study groups as a way not only to grow, but to connect to community. (I chose not to stay at any of those studies.)
  • Despite not knowing anyone at church, because I kept going to the same church and kept just being my friendly self, a stranger walked up to me after church one day and struck up a conversation. Viv became a cherished friend, even though I learned very soon that she and her family were returning to New Zealand hardly four months after we met.
  • Over one of our first coffee visits, when I commented that I was looking for a place to exercise, Viv told me about a women’s Bible study that I could join as well as about a taekwondo class at the local Korean church. Me? Do taekwondo?! I wondered. I’ve never done martial arts, and had I known then what I know now what amount of coordination it takes to do taekwondo well, I might never have thought to give it a try… But give taekwondo a try I did, and at class, I met a wonderful new friend, Sandra, who introduced me to a whole slew of friends, including our mutual friend Becky.
I’m one of the oldest members in taekwondo class. What fun!

I would say God has answered my prayers for close community here in Chiang Mai, and as hard as it is to prepare to say good-bye to some friends, I know I’ll make new friends again. If I’ve learned anything in the 20 years’-10 cities’-25 homes’-6 countries’ worth of moves, it is that making good friends takes risk. It takes stepping out of your comfort zone. It takes being yourself, yet allowing God to challenge you to not be too comfortable hiding behind “being yourself.” The introvert in me, for example, wouldn’t mind just waiting for others to come to me. But, as as Philosopher (Winnie the) Pooh says,

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

Through my connections with Viv and then with Sandra and Becky, I have connected with a rich variety of friends, men and women who challenge and bless me in a different ways, people who have caused me to say, “This, too, has become home to me.”

  • How about you? What’s worked for you in terms of making friends in a new culture?

Adéle lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand,
and considers herself blessed having a rich variety of friends in many places.
Some of her adventures are found at www.AdeleBooysen.com.

Serious Play: An Invitation to Life and Work as Worship

Before I jump into the post, please know that when I refer to work, I do not only mean paying jobs, but any role that keeps you occupied throughout the day.


I love my job. I even have a sticker declaring that very fact stuck to my laptop, just below the arrow keys. Not that I need a reminder. I really do love what I do.

I found the sticker in a tiny basement bookstore in Taiwan, a few years ago, while I was a preschool teacher in Taipei. Here’s an important thing to know about me: I am not a preschool teacher. But I had returned to Taipei to do research on theology of work, and getting that particular job was a great place to do my research, especially in light of the fact that teaching four-year-olds was not necessarily something I felt passionate about.

So, when I first bought the sticker, it really was to remind me that I needed to focus on that which I did love about my job: being in a position where I was able to unlock the world of reading and writing to a bunch of little ones, and to touch their lives through the way I interacted with them. That, I found very rewarding.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I had resigned from being a missionary in the boonies of Kenya for several reasons, one of which was to try and understand the challenges the majority of Christians face in the workplace. One visitor to Kenya (let’s call her Annie) once told me, “What you do [as a missionary] is meaningful, Adéle. What I do just pays the bills and helps me come on trips like these.”

I wanted desperately to help people like Annie understand that work didn’t simply have to be endured, and that all of us are called to serve God regardless of our job titles. I figured, though, that I couldn’t challenge others to embrace all of life and work as worship had I not recently worked in a “secular” environment. And so I left the village and moved back to Taipei (where I had worked at a media ministry for several years before), and ended up teaching preschoolers at a prestigious international school. The career shift was an eye-opener, to say the least. A year later, I took a similar assignment, this time in a Muslim context, in Jakarta.

Along the way, I learned about the concept of serious play from a former professor of mine, and once I tossed my preschool teacher hat, I ended up interviewing almost 30 people from various walks and seasons of life and from several countries who LOVED life and work, and called them serious players. I also found some people who didn’t love their jobs, and called them reluctant workers.

A serious player, I concluded, is someone who is able to say at the end of the week, “I enjoy life. I like what I do—at work and in life—a good eighty percent of the time? But life’s not only good for me, I get to make a difference in my community.”

Serious play is a lifestyle based upon the assumption that the majority of an individual’s time—both in the workplace and in life—is not only spent doing what you are naturally gifted to do (using your skills or aptitude) but also doing what you love to do (your passion or burden) so that work is enjoyable and thus becomes play. And if what you do has significance (it has purpose or is meaningful), it is considered serious.

You can also look at this as working with your mind and your strength, with your heart and with your soul.

When you’re able to do this, work becomes worship,
and you are able to say “I love my job,”
because you’re doing what God
had uniquely created and positioned you to do.

What’s more, you are able to use the talents God had given you in such a way that opens a door for you to “enter into the Master’s joy” (Mt. 25:21). What’s not to love about that?

Serious players, I had found, tend to have the following characteristics.

  1. They are energized and have an energizing effect on their environment.
  2. They are psychologically self-employed.
  3. Serious players have what they need—and perhaps a little more.
  4. They have high self-esteem.
  5. Serious players are able to, and choose to, swim upstream or go against the tide.
  6. They live in the reality of positive, self-fulfilling prophesies so that good things keep happening to them.
  7. They do not allow one area to completely drain them but instead, by living integrated lives, allow different areas to synergize each other.
  8. They are willing to take calculated risks.
  9. They are successful in various fields.
  10. For serious players, work is a natural, enjoyable expression of self.
  11. They take time to invest in relationships.

So, how about you: Are you a serious player? What is it that you love about what you do?
If you’re a reluctant worker, what changes would you need to make in order
for you to become a serious player and thus enter into the Master’s joy?


Adéle’s doctoral dissertation was devoted to the study of serious play, for which she interviewed serious players such as Kurt Warner, Mako Fujimaro and F.W. de Klerk  as well as stay-at-home moms, struggling small-business owners, and successful business people—all serious players. Adéle has written a book on serious play and her goal is to get it published in the not-too-distant future.

Adele Booysen, challenging college students in Asia with Compassion International

blog:  adelebooysen.com |  work


The Corpse in My Car

On a rainy day one August, I had a dead body in my Land Rover. Her name was Caroline, and she was 16. She had drowned on a Tuesday. Her body was found that Friday.

Not being from the area of Kenya where I was living at the time, Caroline’s body had to be transported up into the Nandi hills, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from my village. When I was asked if it would be possible for me to help by driving the body home, I didn’t think twice. My car was big. I would do it.

It was only after I had said, “Yes” that reality set in. It’s not that I’m afraid of a corpse. It’s just a shell, after all. But the young girl had been dead for three full days, and her body had been in the river the entire time. As a precaution, I grabbed some Tiger Balm to put under my nose, and left for the house where I was to pick up the body.

My upper lip was still burning from the Tiger Balm when I rounded the corner to the hut. I greeted the solemn crowd, not sure whom to convey my condolences to. One man stepped up. “Thank you for coming. Now, are you brave?” Before I could answer, I was led through the crowd and into the mud hut.

Except for the body, there was nothing in the living room, not even a single chair. “This is it,” the man said somewhat nonchalantly, pointing at the body. “Now, let’s see who will drive with you.” Before my eyes had adjusted properly to the darkness in the hut, we were once again outside.

I folded the back seat down to make more space in the very back of the truck, and spread out a tarp. Some men carried the body to my car on a stretcher of sacks and a sheet. The eerie silence was interrupted by the shuffling of their feet on the soil and by the sound of the sheet sliding onto the tarp. No-one cried. Everyone simply stared. Then, someone said a prayer in Nandi, and I wished I could speak the local language so I could understand more of what was happening around me.

People started piling into the vehicle. A grandpa was helped into the front seat. The girl’s dad squeezed past the body to sit beside it. More and more people crammed onto the two narrow, drop-down seats in the back of the truck:  An uncle, three kokos (grandmas) from the community, and John, the neighbor who was with the girl when she fell in the river and drowned. Caroline had died alone. Now, she was surrounded by loved ones. Someone covered her face with a veil, and off we went.

As we passed through the market, John asked me to stop. He needed to buy Doom. While we waited, the rain started pouring down. The roads were already drenched and streams were flowing on both sides of the road. John came back with the can of insect repellent and emptied out much of it onto the body as well as onto their feet of those sitting close to the corpse. “To keep the flies away,” he responded to my puzzled look.

I wasn’t sure which of the smells were the strongest: That of the poison, that of the corpse, or those of the old men and women who don’t have the luxury of regular showers, all of which trumped the smell of the Tiger Balm. To make things worse, I couldn’t open my window because of the downpour.

David (the director of our ministry on the Kipkaren River) called soon afterwards. “Adéle, are you scared?”

“No, David,” I assured him. “What is there to be afraid of?”

The answer came to me hardly two minutes later, as we started fishtailing on the muddy road. To add insult to injury, the road we were on was incredibly bumpy. All of us were bouncing in our seats while I tried my best to keep the car on the road. I felt badly that Caroline was having such a bumpy last ride, but what could I do?

I passed two small cars that had ended up in the ditches on the side of the road and prayed that God would protect us from sliding into a ditch, too. Not much later, as I rounded a bend in the road, going at no more than 10 kmh (5mph), there were two trucks that had gone off the road… It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to pass.

“No worries,” an agui (grandpa) exclaimed. “Go back.”

It was clear that we had to turn around

Very carefully, I made a U-turn, and we headed back to where the road had forked. This put us onto an even worse road, one that would take us through two, strong rivers with water way above my tires.

And so the journey continued, all the way back to the Nandi Hills where I had picked up orphans the year before. I recognized many a beacon on the road, including three of the homes along the way where I had picked up children. How ironic, I thought, last time I was here, I brought good news for the children and their guardians. Today, I’m the bearer of sadness.

The last stretch of the journey took me down a road that had likely not seen a car in ages. And then we were there. It had taken two hours to cover the 25 miles.

I got out to say, “Pole” (sorry) to the family while some men carried Caroline’s body to the small hut. Women started wailing. This was family time, and I needed to make my way back to my village. One koko agreed to drive back with me to show me the way home. She knew a shorter way home, one that would take us past many more stranded vehicles, but not through the rivers again.

I was relieved to pull into our compound 90 minutes later, just as the sun started setting. “Two more children fell in the river at Turbo today,” a colleague told me while I washed my vehicle. “Their parents are now around here looking for them.”

Sad as they were, river drownings weren’t unusual in our village and certainly not in many other villages around my continent. This is Africa. And life in this part of Africa can sometimes be tough. Yet we have hope. I cannot imagine life without it.


Tell us a wild story from living internationally, wouldn’t you?

Adele Booysen currently lives in Thailand and works for Compassion International.
She is relieved that her job with Compassion doesn’t included any undertaking responsibilities.

Resolution: To Love Relentlessly

This is true of me: I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I try and live by a motto of resolving what I want to accomplish on a particular day, a specific week, or during a particular season.

It is, however, that time of year when we reflect on the blessings of the past year, and we look with anticipation at the year ahead. And so, as you look ahead at 2013, I’d like to challenge you to seek to live in such a way this year that every component of life — every relationship, every action, and every thought — is connected to and flows from the lifeline of a relationship with God himself so that Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 13:35 would be true of us today:

“Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer equated this life-giving relationship with Christ as being like the cantus firmus of a piece of music, a melody that forms the basis of a multi-layered musical composition.

Some years ago, while living in Kenya, I rewrote 1 Corinthians 13 in my own words, and today, I’ll revisit this passage yet again not only as it pertains to 2013, but to this very day, and every day.

Without love, my life is no more than crumbling ruins

If I speak a slew of languages, but I don’t love relentlessly, I’m nothing but a dog howling at the moon.

If I share God’s Truth with children and adults alike and have enough faith to move to foreign lands, yet I don’t have relentless love, it’s as if I’ve done nothing, and journeyed nowhere.

If I give up luxuries, opportunities and resources to serve with the poor, if I live alone beside rice paddies, but I don’t love relentlessly, I am no-one.

It matters not whether I can speak with a funny accent, pray with passion, believe without limits. Without love, my life is no more than crumbling ruins.

Relentless love never, ever gives up, even when life is tough.

Relentless love cares more whether others feel loved than whether I’m comfortable.

Relentless love doesn’t want what God hasn’t given.

Relentless love doesn’t do things to be seen or heard.

Relentless love doesn’t care about my opinion and my needs, but listens to the opinions of others, and takes it to heart.
Relentless love puts others first.

Relentless love doesn’t get angry when yet another person asks for help or misunderstands me.

Relentless love forgives, again and again.

Relentless love doesn’t rejoice when others fail.

It finds joy in truth and in seeing others discover this Truth.

Relentless love doesn’t give up, but puts up with all things knowing that it is part of God’s greater plan, and trusts that God has the best at heart. Always.

Relentless love seeks to see the best in others. It doesn’t look back and wish for better days from the past. It pushes onward, knowing that beyond this mountain, far greater things await.

Relentless love is consistent. It is not like a fleeting shadow.

Relentless love doesn’t wilt, nor dies. It’s not “on” one day and “off” another. It is consistent. You can depend on it, even though you cannot depend on things and systems, even though you cannot always even depend on other believers.

Though I don’t know or understand all at this stage, the day will come that I will understand fully. I will no longer be craving insignificant pleasures. Instead, I will grow in understanding and maturity.

Right now, I don’t see things clearly. It’s like a window splattered with mud. But the day will come that all impurities will be removed. I’ll see clearly, just as God sees me clearly. I’ll know Him as He knows me.

But for now, while we are not yet there, there are three things I can hold onto:

Trust in God, always. Believe that He is who He says He is, that He can do what He says He can do.
Let hope be the fuel that compels me to move forward: Hope in God.
And the best yet: Love relentlessly, without ever giving up, for that is the way God loved me first.


  • What do you resolve to do this day? This year?
  • Whom do you believe God is asking you to love relentlessly?

Adele Booysen lives in Thailand and works for Compassion International

blog:  www.adelebooysen.com.

On Finding Community

I had hardly been in Kenya a month when friends came to volunteer at the children’s home where I was working. They hand-carried a care package from a lady at our home church: Some notes from her Sunday school class. Some Christmas treats. And a little green guy: an M&M character whom we promptly named Kiptoo [kip-‘toe], the Kalenjin name for a boy born at a time when visitors are at your home.

It was 2005, and the cross-Atlantic trip from the US to Kenya was officially Kiptoo’s first as a stowaway. Since then, Kiptoo has listened to the songs of the Dinka in Sudan, slipped around on muddy trails in the D.R. Congo, and marveled at sunsets in South Africa. He has also walked on the Great Wall of China, cringed at critters in a market in Hong Kong, and sunbathed in St. Thomas.

Fear not: Kiptoo is not Wilson. We’re not planning on building a raft anytime soon, and I definitely don’t talk to him. Despite ascribing responses to various experiences to Kiptoo, he is very much simply a 2-inch-tall plastic container.

So why bother lugging the little stowaway around the world in my camera bag? Kiptoo really is a means to an end. He’s a fun way to share with friends the places I go, the food I try (or won’t try), the things that I see. He’s a way to connect my friends to my world without seeming narcissistic. And he’s plain fun.

‘Cause when you’re single and get to travel a lot for work, traveling isn’t always exciting. Long layovers at airports, well, they’re long, regardless of how many books you carry with you. And thus, you create fun Facebook updates and blog posts. And when you see something breathtaking and you’d really like to take a photo but it would be fun to have a person in the picture, too, Kiptoo is usually keen to crawl out from under the passport pouch and pose. Or when you’re moving to yet another new country where you know no-one, it’s fun to say, “Kiptoo and I are exploring today. We’ve discovered this road up the mountain from where you can see the entire city…”

If I lugged my little M&M all around town with me, though, and if, after a few months in my new city he was all I had to show in terms of someone with whom to explore, well, it would be fair to say that I’m on a downhill slope. Someone throw me a lifeline, quickly!

Dare I ask, What if Kiptoo was like some of our other tools for survival? Would being content with Kiptoo’s company be anything like settling for virtual community rather than going through the hard work of nurturing new friendships? Maybe not. At least friends on Facebook talk back, right? And a good Skype call with a friend back home can be the best medicine to a weary soul any day—but especially when you’re new to a new to an area.

Virtual community should never take the place of real friends, though. It doesn’t matter how many readers subscribe to your blog, how many friends you have on Facebook, or how many followers you have on Twitter: None of that compares to real friendship, to walking off with a smile in your heart (and on your face) after connecting with a new friend and seeing new relationships bud. As my (real-life, long-term) friend Idelette from shelovesmagazine recently pointed out:

“There are some nights when you simply put away the phone [I’d add laptop and iPad, too] and you savor the now of conversation and the gift of Presence.”

I learned that the hard way. Years ago in Kenya, I went through one of the hardest seasons in my life and I discovered what donning the heavy boots of depression felt like. The main reason was that I did not have close friends around me. I was surrounded by dear Kenyan colleagues who were kind to the core, by 100 orphans whom I loved dearly and who gave the tightest hugs imaginable. I even had regular calls with friends back home. But there was no-one right there with me who would ask me tough questions, no-one with whom I process “stuff,” whether important or insignificant.

Some dive buddies from work and I in Boracay, Philippines

Around that time, I explained my state of mind to supporters, equating the experience to scuba diving. As a diver, you are required to have a dive buddy. Your dive buddy checks that your gear is in order, and keeps an eye on your under water. As I’ve become a more experienced diver, I have found that the most enjoyable dives are with buddies that also marvel at the little things, like watching how an anemone moves when you swim by, or how a goby stands guard at the entrance to its burrow, disappearing abruptly, leaving you wondering if you had imagined seeing it. In my world, a good buddy is someone who enjoys the dive as much as I do, all while keeping an eye out for my safety.

On a recent dive in the Philippines, two colleagues and I teamed up as buddies, and having two buddies, not just one, was an even better experience. One of them was always close enough to share a discovery, or close enough for me to share in the joy of what they had just seen.

Life overseas is very much the same way. Though one friend is great, community, by its very nature, is plural. Just one friend cannot meet all your needs. In fact, I have seen (and experienced) how unhealthy that is.

But I’ve also experienced how hard it can be to forge life-giving community when you live in remote parts of the world. There’s no denying that.

To withdraw into a world with only virtual community, though, can be a slippery slope. While I pray that what we have here grows into a place where you can come back and learn from others, where you can meet people who are in a similar situation as yours, people who can pray with you and challenge you to think differently about your circumstances, in the end, this community is just a means to an end. It’s a tool to help you connect with your own real-life community, right where you are. 

It’s true that Intentional Community = Greater Joy. And the joy and the benefits of community are things that must be actively pursued.

“Joy is not something you find when the circumstances change. It’s something that changes the circumstances,” says Erwin McManus.

So, I’d like to challenge you:

  • What can you do to connect to community right where you are?
  • What can you do to bless someone else today? Might it be time to turn off your phone, close your laptop, and be intentional about connecting to people around you?
  • What can you do this week that’s simply fun and would make you smile from the depths of your soul?

Wherever you find yourself today, may God fill you with joy. And may that joy open up doors to rich soil of community, to a place where you can thrive and live in such a way that others will find Hope through you, so your work and ministry is more than a means to an end, but Christ in you would become both the means and the end.

Adele Booysen – Currently oversees the leadership development program with Compassion International in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Happily single, Adele appreciates the company of wonderful friends around the world, while she practices her Thai cooking and taekwondo. You can read more about her adventures at www.adelebooysen.com.