Strangers and Aliens: Covid in the Slums

by Rahma

We had been waiting for months for news about when we might be able to receive a Covid vaccine. The elderly, health workers, government offices, and teachers were the first groups to be vaccinated. My husband and I are teachers, but the free school that we run in our slum community is not a “real” school, so we could not qualify to receive vaccines. 

For eleven months, we opened House of Hope during the pandemic– praying that the benefits to the community were greater than the risks presented by meeting in person. Sickness in slums is a constant affair; there are always children and adults sick with diarrhea, coughs, colds, fevers, sore throats. Normally when someone is sick with some or all of those symptoms, possible diagnoses include: the common flu, dengue fever, typhoid, or TB. Now we added “Covid-19” to the possible list.  

On Wednesday of our last week of classes for the year, my husband received a phone call from the government leader in his mom’s neighborhood. We had registered with this leader two weeks prior, hoping that one day we would be eligible to be vaccinated. “You can go today,” the man said. “To the police center.  You have ten minutes. There are only six vaccines left.”

Talk about last minute warning. We changed our clothes (out of slum clothes, into presentable vaccination clothes), grabbed our important documents (government ID, marriage certificate, my passport and visa), and jumped on our motorcycle. My husband sped through traffic, and we arrived at the police center perhaps twenty minutes after the phone call.

The police center was celebrating their birthday; in honor of the birthday, they were providing vaccines for the community. 

They looked at our ID cards, accepted my husband’s since he is Indonesian, but rejected me. I could not be vaccinated. I fought back disappointment and consoled myself with knowing that my husband was getting his first jab. Twenty minutes later, we were back on our motorcycle and going home.

Two days later, after numerous phone calls and confirmation from the same government leader near my in-law’s house, I set off by bike to go to the government clinic. This time equipped with a letter from the official, saying I was a resident and lived in the neighborhood. I spent two hours waiting in line with about 100 others– this time to get a swab rapid test in order to be eligible to be vaccinated the following day. After two hours of waiting, it was finally my turn and I presented the letter and my ID card.

“What is this?” the lady said.

“My permanent resident card.”

“We can’t use this number. You don’t have the right number.”  She confirmed with a higher-up and they sent me home.

I fought back angry tears once more. 

In some strange way, I felt like this experience bonded me with our neighbors.  Many of them do not have the proper documentation– not only is it a struggle to get vaccinated, but anything legal is a challenge. Registering for government elementary schools. Making marriage certificates. Or birth certificates. Or government health cards. I have a friend who had to travel 3 hours during labor to return to her home village for an emergency Cesarean.  

Scripture says we are strangers and aliens in this world.  There’s nothing like living somewhere ten years, but getting denied a vaccine to remind one of this truth. No matter how many years I live here, I will always be the “Bule” (pronounced “Boo”+ “lay”). I will always be the white-skinned one, with brown hair instead of black. I cried, not so much because I really wanted a vaccine, but because I wanted to belong. To not feel like an outsider in this land where I have given birth, taught hundreds of children, and planted myself. It just did not seem fair.

The following morning, we biked 55 kilometers round trip to the Zoo (where we were refused entry because of new Covid restrictions and because our ID cards were not from Jakarta).  I knew I was dragging a little bit, but a sudden rainstorm refreshed us and we made it home happily.  After a shower, however, I realized I was feverish. I spent the rest of the day in bed. My husband also started to feel sick. We wondered (Asian style) if it was because of getting rained on. 

The following morning, we got Covid PCR tests. We were positive, along with one of our teammates. We paid to get tested at a private clinic, as trying to get a free PCR from the government clinic is nearly impossible. Officially, our test results should be reported to our government health clinic. Officially, if one of our cases were to deteriorate, they should be responsible to send an ambulance and help us get to a hospital. But because we live in a slum, this is not possible.

If we chose to self-isolate in our sabbath house, in the middle-class neighborhood according to our ID address, the health officials would help us.  But since we would rather be at home in our slum house– where there are neighbors who can shop for us, where there is a field we can walk on and get fresh air, where our pet rabbit is, where we feel more comfortable– there is no government health center to report to. Slums are by definition illegal. We live on “dark land,” without government leadership. Slipping through the cracks of bureaucracy. No one wants to help our neighborhood. 

When we explained to our neighbor about trying to report to the government clinic, she laughed and said: “If we die, they don’t care.” 

And for us it does not really matter. Thankfully, our Covid cases seem mild. We have an oximeter and can self-monitor oxygen levels. We have money to buy vitamins, paracetamol, and nutritious food. We also have health insurance and money in the bank if we needed to check ourselves into a hospital. We have lots of middle-class friends with extra money to send us care packages of food. My kitchen is overflowing with fruit, snacks, honey, and other goodies sent to us– not only from our “rich” friends, but also from our friends in the slum.

But as I hear my neighbors cough, I wonder what they will do if they need to be hospitalized.  I wonder how much money is wasted when they go to a doctor and are given amoxicillin and told they just have “strep throat.”  I know that the official numbers of Covid cases in Indonesia are sky-rocketing, and I know that the real number is likely 20x higher than what is reported.  I feel the injustices of lacking proper ID cards. I feel the struggle of my friends wanting to access free government health care. I sense the denial and optimism of our street, hoping that everyone else just has a “normal cough.”

Lord, protect the most vulnerable.  Have mercy on all those who are sick.  Heal our bodies. Heal our souls.  Come, Lord Jesus.

For the past ten years, living in a slum, I have found solace in the words of Psalm 146.  I read these verses again today and they seem so applicable. My hope is not in princes (or government officials)– my hope is in the Lord. The Lord watches over the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, and the bowed down.  And the Lord watches over the foreigner, too (hey, that’s me!). Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

 The Lord reigns forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.

~~~~~~~~

Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.

A Poem for Our Pandemic Fears

by Krista Besselman

There’s prevalent fear, or at least a concern,
That life as we knew it may never return.
This year has been grim and distressingly strange.
We gave up so much and got what in exchange?

 

We mourn what has been such a difficult year.
We look to the future and can’t help but fear
No matter the changes or time we allow
We can’t get to normal from where we are now.

 

With all that’s to fear in a year that’s been tough,
Some fear that the rest are not fearful enough.
And all the uncertainty soon starts to chafe—
We don’t know what’s right and we don’t know what’s safe.

 

May all those I meet, though we may not agree,
Find mercy and grace and see Jesus in me,
That others may find, when their need is most clear,
The peace that He gives that is greater than fear.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

Krista found a heart for missions accounting in Papua New Guinea and still uses what she learned in her seven years there to support Bible translation from Texas. She writes poetry to process the ups, downs, and outright crises of life. Her favorite poems call herself–and others–to remember God’s faithfulness in every situation.

A Defense of In-Between Times

by Jacob Sims

The baby turned six months Monday. Thanks to a series of small-scale bureaucratic miracles, she now counts two-thirds of her life overseas. It passed in but a moment for this young US passport holder. She laughed and cried and ate and slept, basking in the ephemerality of each moment as the sunlight fell softly through her nursery window. 

Though it is only four months since our arrival, I too feel a bit as if I’ve spent the majority of my conscious life in this foreign metropolis. 

Some poisonous concoction of humidity and smog and strange smells and COVID lock-downs and longings for connection and crisp mornings conspire to effect a dramatic slowing of time as I grind to the nadir of my cultural adjustment and pandemic fatigue bell curve here in the dead of hot season in Southeast Asia.

In another year, I might take advantage of cheap, regional flights and jet off to an island or drive up a windy mountain pass, or get out of this city, out of my apartment for goodness sakes, anywhere, just go. 

In another year, I’d pass the time with play dates and happy hours and other meaningless outings around town.

In another year, I’d be normal again. 

But, it is not another year. It is this one, this in-between time. And here I languish alongside the rest of the world. 

I wait in absentia with America as my people, my nation, finds it is no longer willing to wait. In fact, we no longer can wait, not for the future good of ourselves or our families, certainly not for the theoretical good of nameless others who might live if we can wait just a few more months before resuming our petty, violent lives. 

I wait in my new nation of residence as this people has no choice in these matters, where the state says when to fear and what and how high to jump when you’re afraid and where no one asks why or how long anymore.

I wait with the millions and perhaps billions fighting rising anxiety and depression. I wait as we all wrestle with the emotional stressors of a global in-between time; waiting to know if we are going to be okay. We each wait our turn to join the growing ranks of the mentally ill, wondering if, perhaps, we already have. We wait not knowing when this will end or what to do with the unvalued moments here within our grasp.

What are we to do with these in-between times? What of the days spent waiting? How do we reckon with the weeks and months lost and slipping away even now at the speed of molasses in the winter? 

Mostly, we don’t wait at all. Mostly, we merely long after an ethereal normalcy. We do not know when we will return to normal or even if such a normal exists on our horizons. Yet, it is on that abstract horizon that we hang unfounded hope. We long for our nostalgic conception of that which was and its even more idealized form what could yet be again. 

Sure, our status quo was overly busy and, somehow, at the same time, saw us too often idle, bored or overwhelmed into stasis at the sheer meaninglessness of it all. Sure, it was violent and unjust and careless of its impact on others and overly deferential to systems of power seen and unseen. Sure, these systems and their various, insidious techniques have “modified man’s very essence” as Jacques Ellul poignantly describes in his phenomenological masterpiece, A Technological Society

“He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with nature and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.” 

In other words, even pre-pandemic normal wasn’t normal. It wasn’t really normal or true or worthy of being wished back into being as we now wish these in-between times into the dustbin of our distracted, fragmented memories. In essence, our normal then was dominated by the same thing which dominates our in-between time today.

We longed and long with every fiber of our being towards a misdirected hope. We yearned for freedom or we pined after security — knowing but not fully accepting that both were illusions in a world which offers no true ability fully grasp either. We hoped our carefully laid plans and totalizing systems, our reified rationality or “techniques” as Ellul names them, would save us from the meaningless which had become our existence.

What we were really longing after was meaning, belonging, significance — love. What we really wanted was someone to hold; someone to laugh and cry with; someone to know and in that knowing catch a glimpse of what it means to be truly known apart from our marginal utility or social striving.

And now, many of those someones are gone. Some are lost to the virus; many more to the stress of this in-between time; almost all to the semi-permanent social distance which erects further the walls separating our longing, searching, empty souls.

We now lament in unison the easier access to those people in our lives which brought such beautiful, painful, messy hopeful glimpses of love — or even less transcendent forms of human interaction for that matter.

What then of the here and now? What of the costly precious moments we have left while the global system is still down on its knees? What now while we’re still stuck inside with limited access to our relationships or material distractions or new destinations to see and conquer and post about, hoping others might notice? How might we become, in this in-between time, something different, something healthier, something better postured towards our true longings?

Instead of another Netflix show, maybe now is the time to ponder the questions we were always afraid to ask. We miss easy access to people, but do we miss them as humans to be known, to hold, to long for, to be loved? Or do we miss them as props in our own selfish pursuits of transcendence, members of the rapt audience to the grand performances we believe our lives to be? 

Instead of another bottle or more pills or another angry rant on social media or whatever poison numbs our pain most acutely, maybe now is the time to lean into that suffering. Maybe the in-between time is our opportunity to recognize that there is a plane of perseverance which we would otherwise never know were we not to live in a time and place which evokes such pain. If it does not break us, if it does not truly end us or cause irreparable damage, if it does not kill us, it may yet make us stronger. It might even offer glimpses of hope if we approach it with dignity and an eye for it.

Instead of ruminating on opportunities lost or goals left collecting dust or a life’s momentum totally killed by an unexpected global and personal tragedy, maybe now is the time to lean down and kiss that baby who is smiling there, naïve to the world burning around her as the sunlight falls softly on her head. For once, there is no pressure to be elsewhere. Indeed, there is nowhere else to be but here in this in-between moment with her.

Maybe now is the time to live and lean into those blessings of this in-between time which — like the ones of our now idealized pre-COVID world — we also likely won’t appreciate until they vanish. By only looking forward to a future which may or may not ever come to exist, we risk missing out on those moments which certainly do and are all around us if only we have the eyes to see.

Maybe now is the time to summon those last vestiges of perseverance and bits of character we thought left us long ago. Making the seemingly trivial yet eternally important choices will not come easy. This moment, these in-between times are undeniably difficult, but we might just survive if only we can find and remember a purpose worthy of our endurance. 

Maybe now is the time to lean on our Emmanuel. Our ‘God with us’ once became human and remains in solidarity with our late-stage pandemic dregs. Indeed, He is with us in this and all unique and trying times of fatigue and weariness and sickness and eagerness to move beyond the challenge at-hand. He beckons us even now into His arms, into the grand adventure of practicing our faith and hope and love amidst life’s in-between times, these sacred moments of expectation.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jacob Sims serves as International Justice Mission’s (IJM) National Director in Cambodia where he leads a team of investigators, lawyers, social workers, and others in the fight against labor exploitation. From 2015-2020 he led an international development consulting practice and served as adjunct faculty at the College of William & Mary—lecturing in courses on Education, Human Rights, Migration, and Global Health. Jacob previously led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar and co-founded a social justice organization in eastern Uganda. He is currently preparing to publish his first book, WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance.

The Reluctant Missionary

by Shannon Brink

Ever think maybe, just maybe, you would be a better missionary if you just weren’t one? I do.  

When did this term, this identity, get wrapped up in so many unrealistic expectations? Expectations from generations of history, from sending and receiving agencies, from churches, from supporters, from other missionaries, from Facebook, Lord help us, from ourselves. All these expectations point to an image that isn’t even real. Where are the stories of missionaries that were just average humans incarnating Christ where they happened to reside? Is that any different than what I was doing before I sent newsletters and appealed to Church boards? What makes us so special? 

The true confession is, that nothing makes me altogether special. I do dishes and make dinner and wrestle with poverty and try to make space for a devotional life, and question what I am doing and how I am helping anybody, every single living day. I show up for the hospital, I try to give my kids my attention and discipleship, and make a billion mistakes and sometimes, truth be told, hide from people. I hide because I feel incompetent in this language and space and want to be with people I can deeply connect with. I grieve, I seek Christ, I run away from Christ, and do all the very same things I did in my home country except there’s more dust and pests here.

I could gripe about how hard and how lonely this all is, except I know I am not alone. There are many of us around the world that are questioning exactly what it is we gave up our lives for. What could possibly have moved us from there, to here, for? Was I being a martyr? Was I choosing a path that seemed like the most sacrificial, the most blessed, the most exciting, only to find that I could have been just as effective (or dare I say ineffective) as the place we left behind? Are we hindering more than we are helping because of our colonial heritage?  Are we advancing a kingdom or advancing our agendas, our resources, and our need to feel like we did something for Christ? 

If anything has become clear in this COVID season which never seems to end, it is that we cannot be a people about doing anymore.  We came with agendas, we came with plans, we came with a lot of expectations behind and before us, but we are human hearts needing the grace of God not just to do something through us, but IN us. And now we are locked in our houses, homeschooling our kids, limited in resources and freedom of movement and would you believe, the Church and her Christ will still stand? Without our programs and ministries, without our perfect solutions and ideas, and without us at all.

So with every bit of pain I feel, I take comfort in the stripping away of who exactly I thought I would be in this space and think maybe it’s time to change my title and perhaps more so, actually change my heart.  If, at the end of the day, we all realize we need Christ just a little bit, then this entire year would be worth it.  Maybe if we possibly learned that we are just as inadequate as we ever feared but just as called as we ever dreamed, we might actually start being the Church instead of trying so hard to do Church.

Maybe, we’d stop trying to be missionaries and just be His.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shannon is a mother of 4 kids, a nurse, a writer, and a missionary in Malawi. Her family is currently residing in Vancouver, Canada because of COVID. Her writing explores the awkward spaces of life like waiting, grieving, calling, and transition, which seems to become increasingly relevant in our lives and in our global story. She has just finished her first book. Find her at shannonbrink.org.

Grief, the Painter

by Shannon Brink

This year, this season, this current reality: wow. We have pivoted as a family too many times to count, making two cross-continental moves mid-pandemic. After another layer of disappointment was added recently, I was having a difficult time and wrote this. Maybe you can relate.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Grief is the painter and my heart is the canvas.

The hues of purple sorrow and reds of anger. I am drenched. Unanchored to a place, we drifted along untethered. Back to our home country, but nothing was the same. The losses were pale orange as we could not step into our Church, whose doors had closed, could not welcome supporters around our table, because of restrictions, and could not visit our family who were locked tight across a closed border.

There were splashes of yellow as we saw familiar places and enjoyed the trees and mountains I had longed for, but still the losses splashed like dark blues across the yellow until it covered it all.

The colours all mixed together becoming a grey of uncertainty and confusion.

To stay or go, to live locked up here or there, did it matter? We came back anyways, to our adopted country with loose ends and unmet expectations sullenly left behind. We believed that the grey would depart, or so we thought, and were thankful that it seemed like it would be better than when we left it. But then, the dark marched across the canvas like an army and swallowed everything up.

With our packed life, and our hope fresh and baby pink, we landed into the thick of a new and raging danger. And the red of anger with all its loss and disappointment, swallowed the canvas whole. Why have expectations? Why have hopes? Nothing is different here, everything is worse yet again and we must remain sheltering in place. Where is community in isolation? Where is ministry in self-protection? More waiting under the thick grief that has washed over my heart.

But there, the words, fresh on the page:  hope.

A hope capable of starting even here, and increasing. A hope that can be seen behind thick grief, that is magnified in sorrow and pain. Have I lost my hope? No. It’s buried under the colours of grief but the fresh white of it is still there, peaking out from underneath. The grief is in the things I have lost, the tangible things: the comforts, the people, the calling, the meaning, all of the things I have been seeking. But none of these things were ever meant to remain.

Wipe the canvas of my heart clean with your sweat and tears, Lord Jesus. You can count the colours of my grief, and measure and separate them. You can let the colours run off into your hands and remind me of the hope that remains underneath it all. You can repaint this canvas with beauty if I let you.  You are indeed the hope of the nations, the truth blazing through it all. None of this was ever meant to be enough. I can be homeless but not disheartened, unhinged, but not untethered, broken-hearted but blessed because I have a hope beyond reason.

Remain the collector of my heart’s grief and wash me new so they can see the hope of your love in me.

Take the brush from grief, Lord Jesus, and be the rightful painter of my story. Don’t let grief have the final say over my heart, but let hope speak.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shannon is a mother of 4 kids, a nurse, a writer, and a missionary in Malawi. Her family is currently residing in Vancouver, Canada because of COVID. Her writing explores the awkward spaces of life like waiting, grieving, calling, and transition, which seems to become increasingly relevant in our lives and in our global story. She has just finished her first book. Find her at shannonbrink.org.

How to Reorient Our Lives: A Lesson From Jesus’ Earthly Father

by Krista Horn

Joseph is my favorite person in the Christmas story.  He doesn’t get as much attention as other people (and, I would argue, not as much attention as he deserves), but Joseph offers something to the narrative that can impact us deeply if we let it.  Joseph offers an example of how to respond when plans suddenly change and the future crumbles before our eyes.  He offers an example of how to faithfully follow God when the way God is inviting us to go is uncomfortable and unfamiliar and downright hard.  Joseph’s story has a lot to teach us at any time, but especially during seasons like we’ve all experienced this year in 2020.

So many expats have been forced to change course when all they wanted to do was stay on course.  So many have had to face abrupt departures and say sudden goodbyes this year.  So many have had to lament the lack of returning colleagues.  So many have had to hold down the fort single-handedly when the fort was meant to be manned by several people.  So many have been stuck in a holding pattern, not knowing when or if they will cross the ocean again.  So many have made decisions they never imagined making, complicated by this life overseas and all its hoops like visas and passport expiration dates and a host of other factors.

So many expats have been blown by the winds of 2020, blown off course one way or another.

Which is why I am drawn back to the story of Joseph at the close of this year.

Joseph was a man completely thrown off course by the news that his fiancée was pregnant (and not by him) and he was forced to consider a way forward in light of such devastating and life-altering news.  Joseph’s plans had suddenly changed and his future had crumbled.  He was blindsided by grief and chose to quietly extricate himself from the situation.  He chose to forego the wedding plans and the dreams of his life together with Mary.

Until…

An angel appeared.  And got right to the point: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).  Joseph had barely wrapped his head around the fact that he wouldn’t have the future with Mary he’d hoped and prayed for, and now an angel basically tells him, “You thought your future just changed?  You have no idea.” 

It remained true that Joseph’s future had taken a drastic turn.  But now he was back to courting the idea of a future with Mary, albeit a future entirely different than either of them could have imagined.  God was offering an invitation to Joseph: he could still share a life with Mary, still love her till the day he died, and still honor God in doing so.  But it would come with incredible hardships, incredible unknowns, and incredible sacrifice.  Would he take the invitation God was offering, knowing only a fraction of what it would cost him?

“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24).

Joseph said yes to God.

A devotional I read recently put it this way: “He accepts God’s word and He trusts God’s word and He relies upon God’s word and he reorients his life to conform to that word.”

I take heart in Joseph’s example.  His plans had changed twice over, his future had crumbled and was put back together in a forever-altered way, and Joseph said yes to God’s vision for the future.

And the future was hard.  It meant saying yes to the shunning from society that came with a baby born out of wedlock, saying yes to helping his wife give birth while traveling, saying yes to fleeing for their lives, saying yes to living in a foreign land in order to protect his family.  Of course Joseph didn’t know all of that was coming, but his initial yes led to all the others because, I think, that initial yes was a firm decision to reorient his life to line up with whatever God had in store for him.  He could have said “no thanks” to the angel and continued with the idea of walking away from Mary forever, but Joseph instead chose to reorient his life by saying yes to marrying Mary, yes to God.

Parts of Joseph’s story were thrown at him from this broken world while other parts were sovereignly orchestrated by God.  All of it was seen and known by God, and none of it could thwart His good plan for Joseph and his family.

This broken world has thrown some nasty things at us this year too.  And God has sovereignly orchestrated some very difficult things this year.  But I take heart because all of it has been seen and known by God, and none of it has thwarted His good plan for us.  Some of the failed plans this year have forever altered the future.  Some of our foundations have crumbled around us with no promise of being rebuilt. 

And we are faced with a choice: do we willingly reorient our lives to line up with whatever God is doing, even though we don’t understand it all and certainly don’t know what’s still to come?  Do we willingly reorient our lives even when colleagues leave and don’t come back?  Even when we’re forced to leave our home overseas?  Even when our ministries stall for lack of a way forward?  Even when visas are denied?  Even when you make a hard decision based on the information you have, not knowing what the fallout will be?

My prayer as we continue celebrating this Christmas season and complete this difficult year is that we will say yes to reorienting our lives to whatever future God has in store for us, even though it may not be the future we had hoped and prayed for.  My prayer is that we will trust God’s word, remember that He works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28), and faithfully follow Him like Joseph did, even when the world has turned upside down.

~~~~~~~~~~

Krista Horn met and married the man who once took her on a date to go tree climbing, which just about sealed the deal then and there. After her husband slogged through seven years of medical school and residency (with Krista doing quite a bit of slogging herself between work, grad school, and becoming a mom), they left for the mission field with three boys 3 and under. Now they live and work at a mission hospital in Kenya. While her husband is busy on the wards, she stays busy with all the details of motherhood on the mission field.  When she’s not making meals from scratch or singing lullabies or chasing skinks out of the house, Krista loves to curl up with a book, bake chocolate chip cookies, and go to bed early.  Krista blogs at www.storiesinmission.blogspot.com.

 

Making Peace With 2020

by Sara Simons

At the turn of 2020, I wrote this reflection exercise and shared it here at A Life Overseas. It included a simple, transferable process to gain altitude and perspective on the year that had passed. Little did I, or anyone at that time, know the disturbingly drastic change of events that the year ahead of us would hold. That, on top of our normal ebbs and flows of transition, grieves and losses, and major life change. Every single life would be complicated that much more by an increasing pandemic. As we’ve lived it, it has been mixed with racial injustice, poverty, and already terrible tragedies around the world. 2020 seemed like a never-ending stream of bad news.

That is the predominant feeling most had, and yet the truth included moments of goodness, purpose, redirection, and creativity amidst the pain and suffering. 

As I personally wrap up an incredibly challenging year of global transition, in many ways I can’t wait to tear up the calendar and throw it away as soon as possible. While there will still be no ripping of calendars like my mom’s tradition growing up (see the 2019 article), this year’s calendar may have many pages repurposed for lack of use. And still, I long to glean from 2020 what is mine to learn. And to celebrate so many gifts that came in spite of it all.

Rather than remember the long days of confinement, the multiple cancellations of flights, all that didn’t come to be, I want to capture the full picture and instead focus on the good that may otherwise get lost if I don’t pause to remember that which came from my Covid year. 

What became of your covid year? What successes did you experience? Where did you see personal growth?

Whether you’ve had an incredible amount of change or loss or a year full of amazing surprises (yes, I’ve spoken to some who have experienced 2020 that way); or whether you anticipate transition or more uncertainty on the horizon, the opportunity to take a deep reflective pause and make note of the year prior affords us space for both gratitude and perspective.   

Here is a summary of what I wrote last year, along with a special offer:  

While I love to reflect and process for hours, I’ve found the desired space is not always readily available in this season of life and during the holidays. I’ve found grace in giving myself the whole month of January, as of late. But even still, a less comprehensive and intimidating reflection exercise was needed for me to be able to enter in. Here are a few carefully chosen questions and 4 suggested approaches, depending on time.    

 

Four Processing Options:
While you may begin by just diving in, I find a few approaches aid my processing best. Begin by creating a quiet reflective space. Set aside distractions. Choose one of the following 4 visual prompts depending on how much time you can afford. 

  1. 15-30 minutes: Take a look through your calendar and make a list of the top events on your calendar. Let these events prompt your thoughts as you contemplate the answers to these questions. 
  2. 30 minutes-1 hour: If you take pictures, take a look back over the year’s pictures and allow the visual stimulus to jog your brain in reflecting.
  3. 1-2 hours: Look back over your journal from the last year and note the important events and areas that concerned you or caused you great delight. You took time to write them down, note how they impact the questions above. (If you don’t journal or didn’t this year, looking back over emails or Facebook posts may stimulate some of the same thoughts).
  4. 1-3 hours: Utilize one of the above methods together with this visual reflection exercise. Having already made a list of important events, Draw a clock with numbers corresponding to the months of the year (Jan = 1, Dec = 12). Starting with 1, meditate as you draw or write simple words that represent the highlights, breakthroughs, consuming thoughts or God’s delight of January the year prior. Where were you as the clock turned last year? Who were you with? What has changed since?

 

Top reflection questions:
1. What are the most important events that took place in the last year? Who are some of the significant people?
2. Where did I see the greatest breakthroughs (physically, emotionally, relationally, vocationally, spiritually)?
3. What area(s) consumed my thinking and attention most?
4. Where did I experience God’s delight?

Give yourself time to go through each month, draw or make note of the thoughts or feelings you want to capture within or outside of the clock. 

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If you’re like me, doing this in a group creates a unique dynamic of community and accountability. Come join The Way Between and a small group of others like yourself who want to process this hard year in one of the three, three-hour sessions available this 2020.

December 28 – 4-7pm MST,
December 30 – 10am-1pm MST,
January 5 – 10am – 1pm MST

There’s a discount code for A Life Overseas readers. Pay just $25 using the code ALIFEOVERSEAS.

Register here: https://thewaybetween.churchcenter.com/registrations

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sara Simons & her family just relocated back to the US after 8 years living & working in Spain. Moving during a global pandemic has only increased her compassion for working with global workers in major life transition. You can learn more on thewaybetween.org.

This Pandemic Can Help Us to Identify With the World’s Poor

I was always blown away by the number of funerals. During the years our househelper in Tanzania worked for us, I lost count of how many times she asked for time off to attend a funeral for a family member. She was my age, but during those years she lost her mother. Her mother-in-law. A sister. More than one uncle. Several cousins. What was the cause? I would always ask. Malaria, typhoid, or many times, no one knew why. Disease and death were far too common. 

Experts will probably be asking it for years: Why are some developing countries seemingly less impacted from COVID-19 than more developed countries? Is it because they just are testing less? Have a younger population, get more sunlight, have more built up immunity? I’m certain some of those factors are true, but I also wonder if a central reason is because the effects of this pandemic haven’t changed much about regular life for the poor in developing countries. What feels shocking and abnormal to us is simply the way they have always lived. 

I’m listing some of these ways below, and I want to be clear that this is not about inducing guilt in those of us from affluent nations. I’m not trying to minimize the grief and loss so many of us have experienced this year. Instead, my purpose is to help us have greater compassion and empathy with the world’s poor. This pandemic can help us to identify with them in ways we had never been able to before. 

What’s new for us is normal for them. Here’s how:

Normalcy of deadly diseases

Yes, COVID-19 is a new virus, but for many in the world, they are already dealing with much worse. Statistics tell us that one and a half million people worldwide have died from COVID. Yet that same number of people die every year from tuberculosis, most of them from India, other parts of Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Like COVID, tuberculosis is also an airborne virus. It may not be a pandemic, but it is most certainly an epidemic.  

In addition, malaria kills over 400,000 people each year, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa (and some in South East Asia). Most of them are young children. There’s also HIV, dengue, typhoid, and rotavirus. For many people in the world, having deadly viruses lurk around every corner, in every cough, in households and churches, is normal life. 

Familiarity with death

Statistics tell us that in Central African Republic, the life expectancy is 53 years. In Nigeria, it’s 54 years. In Afghanistan, it’s 64 years. In contrast, the life expectancy of someone in the United States is 78, the United Kingdom is 81, and Australia is 83. 

Of course, every death is tragic, even in affluent countries. But perhaps my generation has never before been surrounded by such a high death rate right in our own communities. Let us remember that this is real life for many of the world’s poor. 

Stretched healthcare systems

For every 1000 people, there are 2.3 doctors in Canada, 2.6 doctors in the United States, and 4.2 in Germany. In contrast, there are .05 doctors for every 1000 people in Chad, .62 in Myanmar, and .16 in Zambia. Crowded hospitals? Doctors who can’t give their full attention to patients? Many in the world were already used to this. 

Unpredictable government restrictions

Shuttered churches with unrealistic rules, mask mandates, forced closure of small businesses–all these are things that many of us would never have thought possible in our countries. On top of that, the regulations keep changing on a daily basis, feeling like whiplash as we struggle to keep up. As those of us from liberty-loving countries are dealing with a clamp down on our cherished freedoms, let us remember those from countries where this has always been their reality. Many of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Substandard education options 

Many Americans are faced with a difficult choice: Allow their children to receive a substandard education online, or pay for private school. For many in the world, this has always been their dilemma. Government run schools are often overcrowded and very poorly resourced, and anyone who wants their child to get a decent education must make huge financial sacrifices. Homeschooling isn’t an option for working parents in poverty, and in some places, it’s even illegal. They either pay dearly or their kids don’t get educated. 

For them, this is not temporary.

We are all tired of the upheaval, aren’t we? We are weary of the chaos, the disappointments that keep piling up, the changing regulations. Everything feels uncertain, unpredictable, and that’s scary. We want life to return to normal. Yet for those living in war zones, in refugee camps, under unstable governments, that kind of turmoil is their normal. 

Hopefully, one day, the worst of this pandemic will be over. This virus will no longer be a huge threat, the death rate will even out, the healthcare system will recover, public schools will open, and restrictions will ease. But for the world’s poor, they will continue to live life in pandemic-type conditions, as they always have. Will we think of them? Will we remember what it felt like, and use that empathy to pray and give and go? 

Continue to remember….those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)

Let us resolve to never forget. 

A Global Pandemic and Lives Interrupted

In our house we have a saying. “Don’t speak while I’m interrupting!” Other people don’t find it quite as funny as we do. We are a family of interrupters, none worse than me and my husband.

Sometimes I wonder if that statement is what God might say to me with a gentle grin as he upends my life with interruptions and changed plans.

A few years ago I wrote about my brother and his wife having an encounter with the Great Interrupter. In their case the encounter put them in a place of selling a home of over 15 years, leaving a church of the same, leaving a community where they have loved hard and were loved back, and leaving the only home their children remember. They embarked on a mid-life journey to begin a life in the Middle East. Like a train heading one direction only to switch mid-journey to another set of tracks, so was their interruption. Who needs a mid-life crisis when the Great Interrupter is in your life?

Seven years after their interruption, my husband and I had our encounter with the Great Interrupter. We ended up in the Kurdish Region of Iraq in a 2-year commitment at a Kurdish university that would end up being cut short after a year with another great interruption. While I loved the first interruption, despite the myriad of details and hard goodbyes, I hated the second. I cried every day for a month in Kurdistan and then more once we arrived back in the United States.

And the thing that made me the angriest was when people said to me “There must be some reason for this.” “Yes,” I would respond somewhat politely. Inside I was more honest – Don’t you think I freaking know that in my head? It’s my heart that hurts. Or the even more honest “Shut up!”

And then came a global pandemic and around the world we have seen lives interrupted. Our plans were all going so well! We had dreams and businesses, ideas that were turning into reality. Then just like that – bam! Borders closed and we left the countries we loved. Or we stayed, only to be housebound for weeks on end, unable to meet with people we had come to love, stymied at every turn. Even worse, some have encountered the death of those they love and that interruption feels unbearable.

The words “God’s in control” that are so easy to say when things are going well are suddenly impossible. Collectively we’ve been shown just how little control we actually have and it’s maddening. Out of one side of our mouths come screams of “NOOOOO!” and out of the other comes the socially acceptable “But God’s in control! God’s got this!” The war in our heads is brain crushing and headache inducing.

As a community at A Life Overseas, even before the pandemic we knew intimately about these encounters with the Great Interrupter. When your life seems to be heading one way, the trajectory clear, and then in a slow but steady encounter with the Great Interrupter you realize that your life is being disturbed. No longer can you settle comfortably in the familiar because the voice of the Great Interrupter is strong and powerful, compelling if not always clear.

These interruptions are not easy. How can we possibly do this? What should our next step be? Is this the end of our life overseas? When will I get to see my aging parents again? What do we do in the future? How do we worship? How do we move forward at all. These questions and more are part of our inner dialogue and our outer conversations. There are also the physical and emotional symptoms and feelings of being out of control. Sleepless nights, anxiety, a nervous stomach, checking our email, phones, and the news constantly, tears, irritability, anger, and depression are all the human parts of coping with these interruptions.

Can we, can I, believe that within this quite obvious lack of control, accompanied by our physical and emotional discomfort, there is a safety net woven by God to catch us? A safety net created with the deepest love and whispers, not shouts, of his presence? Can I believe that interruptions are not mistakes, rather they show us God’s care in ways we might never understand without them?

Throughout history God has interrupted people’s lives, moving them from comfort to the unknown and asking them to trust along the way. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and more are in the ranks of those whose lives were interrupted and who walked in faith. To be honest, I’m less interested in them then I am in their wives. What could the untold stories tell us of these women and their faith journeys? What would they say to me, to you about trust? About faith? About God’s whispers in the hard parts of the night?

I don’t come to you with answers today. I come with these words, committed to memory many years ago, for these are the words that I hear whispered in the still of the night during these interruptions:

“I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me”
*

What is the story of your interruption during this pandemic? How did your life change? Are there words you remember in the dark parts of the night? Words whispered in your heart? Please share them and know – You Are Not Alone.

Why We Need Kindness Right Now

by Gina Butz

Sometimes as I think about this strange season we’re in and how much longer it’s going to be, I wonder how we will get through. What I keep coming back to is this: we need a lot more kindness.

We need to be kind to ourselves, and we need to be kind to others. In stores, online, in zoom calls and on the streets (from a safe social distance, of course). Our world needs more kindness if we’re going to get through this well.

We need kindness because we’ve never done this before. And when we do something for the first time, we don’t know what we’re doing. Which means we’ll feel lost and uncomfortable and incompetent. And the last thing we need right then is to put unrealistic expectations on ourselves to know what to do and be able to keep going just as we did before. No, we need someone to be kind to us. We need someone to be patient while we learn this new season.

We need kindness because this is scary. And when things are scary we get anxious. That’s normal. Some of us are more anxious than others for a lot of really good reasons-our health is poor, or our parents are old, or we have to work in hospitals. Whatever the reason, whether it makes sense to us or not, it’s understandable. When someone is scared, it doesn’t help to tell them not to be scared. They need empathy. They need someone to listen to their fears and tell them we’re with them.

We need kindness because it’s just too much sometimes. And when it’s too much, it’s not because we’re weak or we did it wrong or we stink at this. It’s too much because we weren’t made to live this way. Adrenaline is only supposed to last us so long — just enough to get away from the danger. We can’t get away from this danger. When we hit the wall (and we will), we need to be kind to ourselves about it.

We need kindness because this isn’t normal. But this is the only normal that we’re going to get for a long time, and that’s hard. Learning to live with that is discombobulating, which is a fantastic word but something none of us likes to feel. We’re living with little “t” trauma all the time. A lot of us feel disregulated. Kindness helps get us back to a healthy place.

We need kindness because we’re sad. The big, obvious losses we’re incurring are easy to note, but we tend to ignore the little ones. We did a zoom call the other night with old friends from overseas, and while it was a delight, the fact that they are here in my city and I can’t see them grieved me. Those little losses are like pinhole pricks in the bucket of our life; after a while, we’re drained and we don’t know why. Kindness acknowledges the holes and says, “no wonder you’re sad.”

And all of this makes us really tired in a way that surprises us a lot. Why are we so tired? Because of all the things. Because of unexpected homeschooling, and ridiculous amounts of pivoting, coupled with less positive relational connection than even the most introverted among us need. We need to be kind to ourselves when we’re tired. Because of course we’re tired.

So we carry all of that on us, often without realizing it. And that’s a heavy load, especially to carry for a long time. Extending kindness is like someone coming alongside us to acknowledge the impossible weight, lift the pack off, and give us permission to rest. Yes, we need to keep walking, but we also need to give ourselves and others the space to sit in that grace from time to time.

Maybe you’re taking this all in stride. Maybe you’ve moved through the grief and confusion and you’re in a place of acceptance. That’s good. But others are still struggling. Or will be struggling (including those of us who are doing well today — it might hit us again tomorrow). We need kindness because even though we’re all in this together, we’re not. Each of us is experiencing it differently, for a million reasons. And when someone else hits the wall in a way we don’t understand, they need kindness. Kindness gives everyone the space to be on their own journey in responding to this.

I hope we give it to them. Because kindness grows kindness. And when we are in a practice of extending kindness to ourselves in difficult seasons, then it’s our natural response to extend it to others.

As hard as this season is, that’s my hope — that this could be a time when we grow kindness like wildflowers. May this be a time when our ability to look each other in the eyes and simply see “beloved of God” before us grows exponentially. Kindness will help us get through it.

Originally published here.

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Gina Butz and her husband, Erik, have served in full time ministry for 25 years, 13 of them in East Asia. They are currently raising their two third culture kids and an imported dog in Orlando, Florida, where Gina serves in global leadership development at Cru headquarters. Her first book, Making Peace with Change: Navigating Life’s Messy Transitions with Honesty and Grace, released in February. She blogs at www.ginabutz.com and loves to connect on Twitter and Facebook.

Caring for TCKs During Covid

by Lauren Wells

Back when COVID first began to wreak havoc on the lives of expat families with whom I work, I put together a spontaneous video series. I had talked through the same points, concepts, and answered the same questions with many families in those early weeks of quarantine and decided it would be easier for them and myself if I could record those responses. I figured I would send them to those families and put it on my website (TCKTraining.com) in case it might benefit others as well.

I created the Power Points, asked my husband to take our girls out on a drive for an hour (because there weren’t many other options during quarantine), and quickly recorded the series. Oh, and this was the day after we moved across the country so what you can’t see is that I am surrounded by boxes and the wall behind me is the only sliver of blank wall space in the tiny apartment we spent those first few weeks in. All that to say, it was much to my surprise (and honestly, horror because I’m a perfectionist and they are far from perfect) that the videos that I threw together quickly grew to over 1,000 views. It clearly hit a felt need. 

Though it has been nearly seven months since that time, the effects of COVID on expat families are far from over. I pray that these thoughts, practical ideas, and reflection questions allow you to proactively care for your family in the midst of this season.

 

When Leaving Well Didn’t Happen…RAFT (Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, and Think Destination) is still important. 

Reconciliation with those whom you’ve abruptly left is critical. This is especially true for TCKs who learn early on that they can use a move to excuse making amends with people. If the answer to any of these questions below is “yes,” it is important to do the hard work of reconciling.

  • Are there people who you or your TCKs were not on good terms with when you left?
  • Is there someone who was upset about how your leaving happened?
  • Is there anyone that you or your TCKs were relieved to leave because that seems a good excuse to not resolve an issue? 

Affirmation is still important. You may have left without the time to tell the people who you love that you love them. Don’t let that keep you from doing so. 

  • Write a list as a family of all the people you left who were significant in your life. 
  • Decide how you’ll affirm them. This could be a letter, pictures drawn for friends by your children, a video call, a text, etc. 

Farewell needs to be said, even if you’ve already left. Because we live in a very connected world, it can be easy to skip this step because we feel we aren’t really saying “goodbye,” we’ll still “see” them on Facebook. Yet, we are saying “goodbye” to the place that they held in that season of life and that needs an intentional farewell. This can happen over a phone call, in a video message, in a letter, etc. It is particularly important that your children have a chance to do this with their friends. TCKs get into the habit of cutting off relationships without saying, “goodbye” so it is important to show them the importance of an intentional farewell. 

  • Who did you not say a proper “goodbye” to?  
  • Who did your TCKs not say “goodbye” to? 
  • How will you arrange that in the coming days? 

Think Destination becomes think about where you are. If you are in your current location because of an evacuation, you likely didn’t spend time planning for your arrival and all of the things you wanted to do upon arrival (and if you did, that was likely all canceled anyway). As difficult as it may be, one of the things that I have seen be the most helpful in this season is gratitude. 

  • What are 5 things that you like about the place where you are?
  • What are some things that I’m grateful we’ve been able to do/experience in this place? 

 

When Leaving Well Didn’t Happen…Meeting Emotional Needs Becomes Critical 

Prioritize family health and relationships. It can be easy to put these needs on the back burner during transition, but that is exactly when prioritizing them is most necessary. 

  • What do your children need from you as parents in this season? 
  • What are the emotional needs of each family member and how can you work as a family to meet them? Some examples could be stability, playfulness, nurturing, quality time, introverted time.

 

When Leaving Well Didn’t Happen…Assume a Block has been Added to the Grief Tower 

The Grief Tower is my method of explaining the concept of TCK grief. Each time something grief-inducing occurs, it stacks like a block on the grief tower. When those blocks go unprocessed and unresolved they remain on the tower. In early adulthood, TCKs with a high-stacked grief tower are susceptible to it toppling over and wreaking havoc. If your family has been negatively impacted by COVID – an evacuation, a difficult quarantine period, an abrupt end to school, etc. you can assume that your child has added a block to their Grief Tower. If not intentionally unstacked, it will remain there.

So, how do you unstack it? 

 

1. Talk Through the Emotions
Pull out an emotions chart (you can download one for free at tcktraining.com/worksheets) and talk through times in the past year each of you have felt that emotion. Parents, you need to give honest answers to be a model for your kids.

 

2. Begin Family Check-Ins
Each day, ask, “What was the best part of your day?” and “What was the hardest part of your day?” My kids like to ask everyone to point to the emotion face that they felt today on the emotions chart, so you might consider doing that too! This seems like a simple process, but especially during stressful seasons, these regular and expected check-ins become a built-in family debrief. When you have conversations about the challenging, worrying, difficult, parts of the day, it keeps those moments from being stored and unprocessed in the brain which can lead to them becoming a “block” on the Grief Tower. Ask questions like, “What made that so hard?” “What do you wish would have happened differently?” “What do you hope tomorrow looks like?”

 

3. Process the blocks
Processing the blocks on the Grief Tower can happen in a number of different ways. Here are ideas for various ages:

For toddlers and young children, tell them their story. You can either talk about them personally or create a character that is like them and tell a story that parallels theirs. Pause routinely to ask “How did he/she/you feel?” Storying allows them to process their emotions by putting themselves back in that time and place. If they don’t want to talk about how they themselves feel, using the narration of character can help them to open up.

Example, “There was a little boy who lived in Indonesia. He loved living there and played outside with his friends everyday. One day, his parents found out that they were going to have to go back to America and only had five days to say goodbye. They told the boy that they needed to start packing their things quickly. How did that boy feel when he was packing his things? Then, they flew to America and had to stay inside the house for TWO WEEKS! How did he feel being stuck inside? They thought they would go back to Indonesia in just a couple of months, but now it has been seven months and they are STILL in America. How is that little boy feeling right now? 

For ages 5 and up, use art processing. You can create your own ideas, but here are a few to get you started.

  • Paint a picture of how your insides feel right now
  • Sculpt something with play-dough that you are excited about and something that you are nervous or worried about
  • Perform a skit with your siblings about something difficult that has happened in the past year
  • Draw a picture of a fun/happy thing from the last week and a picture of something that was hard/sad for you this past week

For teenagers, give the gift of a Safe Space. Create a safe space for your teen to process with autonomy by giving them something specifically for the purpose of processing their grief. You might consider doing this for the adults in the family as well! Along with the gift explain, “We’ve been through so much in the past year and we are learning how important it is to process through it instead of pushing it down and moving forward. We know you like ____, so we’ve gotten this for you specifically for you to use while you think through and process the last year. We are here if you’d like to process out loud at any point.”

Safe Space Gift Ideas: 

  • New art supplies for the one who processes through creativity 
  • A cookbook for the one who cooks when under stress 
  • A nice journal for the one who processes through writing 
  • New running shoes for the one who goes for a run to process 
  • A cozy blanket for the tactile one who need comfort to process 
  • A set of legos or model airplane kit for the one who needs to process while building
  • Seeds and gardening tools for the one who needs to get their hands dirty while they process 

 

This season has been a difficult one for everyone, but particularly for expat families. For many, leaving well didn’t happen. Leaving happened abruptly, spontaneously, and with little chance for intentionally transitioning well. Instead of moving on past this time without processing it, I pray that you will use this time and these tools to help your TCKs work through the grief of this season. Doing so can prevent unresolved grief and the consequences that result and can lead to learning to process emotion in healthy ways for everyone in your family. 

 

*The Grief Tower and Safe Space Gifts are trademarked concepts of TCK Training

To learn more about caring preventively for your TCKs, consider attending an upcoming TCK Training workshop

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lauren Wells is the Founder and Director of TCK Training and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids. She specializes in practical, proactive care for TCKs and their families and has trained TCK caregivers from over 50 organizations. Lauren grew up in Tanzania, East Africa, where she developed a love for smokey chai and Mandazis (African doughnuts). She now lives in South Carolina with her husband and two children.

Leaving Early Has Complicated All the Complicated Emotions of Re-Entry

Haven of Peace Academy, overlooking the Indian Ocean

My youngest has been fascinated with finding places on Google Earth. He recently brought me the iPad and said, “Mommy, help me find HOPAC.” 

My son is in third grade, and Haven of Peace Academy is where he went to school for kindergarten through second grade. But even before that, HOPAC was always a part of his life. It’s where my husband and I ministered for sixteen years. The last three years, it was where I was the elementary school principal. 

I showed him how to type in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “Here’s downtown, right?” I pointed out. I traced the main road that led to the north of the city. “This is Shoppers Plaza; that’s where we would buy chicken on Saturday nights; this is the White Sands roundabout. Then you turn right here, and see? There’s HOPAC!” 

Together we then traced the road down a little further until we could pick out the house where we had lived for ten years. We zoomed in on it, and a hundred memories rushed out. My eyes grew misty. My finger stopped, hovering there, suspended above our home. Ten thousand miles away, yet so close I could almost touch it.

“I like my new school,” Johnny tells me. “But I like Tanzania better.” Me too, Buddy.

***

I knew there would be grief in leaving. We had planned our departure a year in advance; we knew it was coming. We knew it would be hard. Tanzania had been our home for sixteen years.

But what I can’t figure out is what part of my grief is because we left, and what part of my grief is because we left the way we did. 

***

In July, we found ourselves needing to furnish our new apartment in California. We had very few possessions to our name, which meant we were looking to buy just about everything. Thrift stores, OfferUp, and garage sales became our new pastime. But our favorite were estate sales. There was something particularly thrilling about walking through an entire house, picking out the things we needed. 

Yet I couldn’t help but think about the strangeness of estate sales, this sifting through what felt like the entirety of someone’s life. “It must be so hard for the person that lived here,” I said to my husband, “knowing that strangers are haggling over everything they owned. It’s good that they can hire a company to sell all of this for them, and don’t have to watch it happen.”

And then it struck me: We had that exact scenario happen to us. But we did watch it happen. 

On March 20th, I had come home from my last time at HOPAC to find strangers in my house, opening my cabinets and looking for things to buy. We had been told to buy plane tickets at 1 am the night before, scheduled to leave because of COVID just four days later. Word traveled quickly, and eager buyers wanted to get a head start on the things we were selling. My husband had allowed them in, assuming I had sent them. I freaked out. “Get these people out of my house now!” I hissed. 

The next three days were a frantic whirlwind of sorting, packing, and selling. I sold the dishes out from under the children and the kitchen containers still filled with flour and sugar. We never did get rid of everything, leaving the house with a friend to finish sorting the chaos we had left behind.

At the last minute, I gave away all of my kids’ baby things that I had been carefully saving, taking pictures of them instead. I didn’t have time to overthink whether or not that was the right decision. Recently it occurred to me that I never took my curtains down. I don’t know why that bothers me; it’s not like they were amazing curtains. But I had looked at them every day for over a decade, so it’s strange not knowing what happened to them. 

The night before we left, I was in a tizzy at midnight, trying to find my only pair of closed-toed shoes, which I intended to wear while traveling. I tore the place apart, frantically looking for them. I finally found them outside in a garbage bag; someone had inadvertently thrown them out. I was relieved to find them, but nagged by the worry of what else had been accidentally thrown away.

When my husband’s birthday came around in August, I realized that our traditional birthday banner must have been sold accidentally. I mourned over that birthday banner, and then felt stupid for caring about something so silly. But even now, I get stress-filled nightmares where I’m trying to pack. And there’s never enough time. 

So I guess you could say we experienced our own estate sale. And yeah, it was strange. Traumatic, even. 

***

I keep thinking that I’m over the worst of the grief. We have so, so many good days right now. But then there’s a trigger.

Friends from Tanzania came to visit us last week. It did our soul good to see them. They brought us some things we had left behind:  Yearbooks, certificates from teachers, the name sign from my office door. Special things.

 The flood of memories, again.

I found myself awake at 2 am, tears rolling down my cheeks. Again. I pounded my fist on God’s chest crying, “This is not the story I wanted!” I did not want to leave that way. That wasn’t how it was supposed to go. How desperately I wish I could go back and re-write that story.

I can see God’s hand in it, of course. I can see how leaving early was the impetus for my husband getting the job he has now. That might not have happened if we had left in July like we planned. But sometimes, it doesn’t matter; I’m still just sad. It’s good, I guess, that the human heart is capable of holding both sadness and gratitude at the same time.

***

HOPAC started their first day of school at the end of August. I greedily stared at the pictures posted in the parent WhatsApp groups, craving glimpses of my students. A few days later, I reluctantly left the groups, knowing I needed to let go. 

I know how this works. I was the Stayer for many years, so I’ve watched many people leave. I know that it’s hard to be a Stayer and say good-bye, but that life goes on pretty quickly without the Leavers. It has to. So many leave in an expat community, every year, that you can’t sit and stew about it for very long. So now that I am the Leaver, I want to move forward, and to let the Stayers move on. 

Except, I didn’t get to hug those kids goodbye. “Moving on” feels like running in soggy sand when you didn’t get to finish well. There are loose ends dangling all over the place.

***

Whether I like it or not, the earth turns, the sun still rises and sets, the seasons shift. Each day pulls me farther away from that life, pulls me deeper into this new one. I can grieve it and yearn for it and wish that it didn’t end that way, but life continues to go on. 

Time is a healer, and that is a gift. Almost imperceptibly, the scars become a part of who I am. One day, some time from now, I will look back and not want to change the story. I’ve lived enough years to know that truth.