Prepare Ye (So It Begins)

On the back of my dorm room door this past school year, I placed four sticky notes – one pink, another green, a third blue, and the fourth orange. Written on each sticky note was a word or phrase, something I wanted to remind myself of every time I left my room.

Beloved. Whole. Unfinished. Called by name.

These notes were a way to ground myself, steady myself, before the world and the coming responsibilities flooded into my day, as they inevitably did. But before I opened that door to what each day would hold, I re-read my handwritten notes with the hope and intent that I would gradually live into believing and being comfortable with each of them.

When I saw the artwork (pictured above) from Morgan Harper Nichols a few weeks ago, it reminded me of my sticky notes.

“Let this be the year you go after courage.”

I think this focus on courage is pretty fitting considering what this next year will look like. Or, rather, what this year might look like – because honestly, I don’t have a clue of what’s to come. I know the basics – through the Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) I’ll be living in Matimba, Rwanda for the next eleven months. Matimba is in the northeastern corner of the country, up by the Uganda and Tanzania border and near the Ibanda Game Reserve. My time there will be spent in service to the Matimba Lutheran Parish, the Kagitumba Lutheran Parish’s nursery school, and the Bwera congregation’s primary school, where I will be helping with English or other programs. Outside of these work environments, my placement is primarily relational as I engage with different communities and pastors in the region. As this is a new iteration of this placement site, more opportunities may arise as the year continues.

But because there are so many unknowns and so much uncertainty involved in moving seven times zones away from home for eleven months, courage is one thing I am in desperate need of for this journey.

Brené Brown, a researcher, author, and public speaker on the interconnectedness of shame, vulnerability, courage, and worthiness explains in her TED talk that the original definition of courage in the English language was, “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”

As much as humanly possible, I will strive to tell my story of this year with my whole heart – not only here, for you all to read, but in the ordinary, everyday moments that become woven into the tapestry that is life. There will be experiences I have and people I encounter during this year that will change who I am and how I live in this world in ways I cannot possibly fathom now. There will be permanent scars left on my heart from coming face-to-face with the realities of power, privilege, poverty, sexism, and so much more. And yet, at the same time, my heart will be strengthened and transformed by the love, generosity, and faith of the family and community that will be accompanying me through this year.

Of course, there are a myriad of additional ways to define courage, including the Collin’s Dictionary definition which says courage is, “the quality shown by someone who decides to do something difficult…even though they may be afraid.”

In speaking about this year with close friends and family over the past few months, I have often referred to this year in Rwanda as a hop, a skip, a jump, and a pole vault out of my comfort zone. I would be lying if I said this year didn’t scare me half to death, because, it does. I look at my family and friends and I think there’s no way I can leave all these people behind for a year. Orientation begins August 13th in Chicago, less than a week from now.

And yet, I would be lying if I didn’t also say that I am so ready to go, because, I am. I am ready to see who I am and who I’m becoming, and ready to fall head-over-heels in love with Rwanda and her people.

So despite all the questions and all the answers that may or may not arrive (because truthfully, they probably won’t), I am again reminded of the fact that we don’t need to have all (or even some) of the answers to do this work of loving each other, of gathering in ways that nourish community, of seeking God together and sitting together in the midst of joy and grief. We just need to start, taking our fear by the hand, trusting that the path before us will carry us where we need to be.

Home for the Holidays

It is now November, inching toward December. The holiday season is beginning, and the annual “fight” about when Christmas music is allowable gains fresh momentum. (Personally, it doesn’t matter to me – if it brings you joy, that’s great! I randomly heard “Winter Wonderland” on a bus here a few weeks ago and it brought me so much happiness).

The holidays are also a time to gather with people we love. For some, that’s family. For others, that’s friends, or friends-turned-family. This will be my first holiday season away from my family in the US, and that’s hitting me in a different way than I expected it to.

Some days are easy – I can message my mom about a fun moment that happened or ask her a quick question about something that’s on my mind through a voice call. I can check in with my brothers as to how their days were or receive a picture of some cookies one of them baked with their wife. I can even video chat sometimes, and despite needing to stand on my bed to get close enough to the light so they can see my face too, it’s *almost* like being in the same room with them.

Except when it’s not.

Because other days are hard – I long to give my brother a big hug when he gets a job interview for a position he’s excited about or wish my grandma happy birthday in person, knowing no days are guaranteed. I drool over the picture of the chocolate chip cookies knowing that despite all the delicious food here in Rwanda, chocolate chip cookies are few and far between. And on those hard days, if I dwell on the months between now and when I can finally greet my friends and family in person again, it feels like a lifetime from now.

Reader, many of you have asked what the hardest thing about this year is. While there are many challenging things (and even more joys), the hardest is missing all of you. Some days I am gratefully reminded of your presence in my cloud of witnesses that I carry around with me like my backpack, and some days your physical absence weighs heavy on my shoulders.

And yet, I am not without the presence of family this holiday season. I am with my family here – Dr. David, Mama Kaliza, Kaliza, Rebecca, Erik, Anita, and Mitchay. I have my cohort – Jackie, Antionette, Marie, Frieda, Alex, and Pastor Janelle. I have a few friends – Gaby, Violet, Francis, Robert, and Charles. I am with all the women at church who smile and give me great big hugs at the end of the service every Sunday. And I have my students at Bwera and Kagitumba, who smile wide when I walk in the classroom door and never cease to surprise me with their creativity. For their love, joy, and care, I give deep, grateful thanks. Some days, the months between now and when I return to the US doesn’t seem like a lifetime from now, but rather not enough time to spend with this incredible community.

Yes, our holiday traditions here may look a little different than what my MN family does, but I cannot wait to see the ways that love will still weave itself though our gatherings and celebrations. It might not be a white Christmas, but a green Christmas carries with it the joy of new life in ways a snow-filled winter wonderland does not. It may not be my Minnesota home, but it’s my Rwandan home. And in the end, that’s what matters. I may be almost 8000 miles from Minnesota, but I’m still home for the holidays.

Overflowing Grace

I open my door to put my Chacos on. Though they’re sturdy sandals, they’re not the prettiest sight at the moment – dusty from walking down the dirt roads here or at school, and now muddy from the rain we’ve had all day. I’m a little disgusted with myself, because cleanliness, including having clean shoes, is important here. I don’t think I really have time to wash them now before choir begins, and I again resolve to clean them when I return, as I always do. But then I forget. Or I’m too tired. Or the water isn’t running today for the fifth day straight, and it doesn’t seem to make sense to use valuable rainwater from our tank for that purpose when we could be using it to cook, bathe, or another more important task. Or, or, or…

I sit down on my front step and knock them together in a half-hearted attempt to loosen some of the caked-on mud and grime. Not much luck, partly because of my weak attempt and partly because of the super-glue-like properties of Rwanda’s mud. Sighing, I swipe a hand around the edge of one sandal to try and dust it off a little, hoping to make it look presentable for choir practice. They don’t look too bad, and with the length of my skirt it’s probably okay…

As I slip my feet in and tighten the straps, I look up to see if Mama Kaliza is outside yet, as we’re walking over to the church together. I don’t see Mama Kaliza, but I see Mitchay, our house worker, watching me from across the yard. I smile and say muraho[i], and she returns the greeting and begins to walk over to me.

As she reaches where I’m sitting, she communicates with me via hand gestures and a little Kinyarwanda, asking if I want my shoes washed. I stare up at her, torn between needing to say yes and feeling incredibly surprised and vulnerable at the same time. After a moment I hesitantly agree, knowing they need to be cleaned, and slip my feet out of the sandals.

She starts in with a wet rag and then quickly says she needs more amazi[ii]; she goes and scoops some into a basin from a nearby bucket while grabbing a bar of soap. And then she’s back. I watch in awe as her strong hands deftly scrub away the stubborn mud and dirt, yet tenderly wipe away the soap and water as she finishes each sandal.

As I watch her work, I feel small. Not only because of how gross I had let my sandals become and my shame at letting anyone else see that, but also because of the way she’s caring for me. My sandals and I don’t deserve this kind of care and attention, and she didn’t have to offer to wash them for me. Inside my head I’m practically screaming for her to hand me the soap and rag, to let me do it, so that I don’t have to feel this incredible sense of vulnerability and dependency.

But instead I just sit there, watching her work, feeling like I could not have been laid bare any more than if she had been washing my feet instead. And suddenly, I understand the story in John 13 about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in a whole new way. I’ve had my feet washed before and washed many others’, both during high school mission trips and during worships at camp, but this is different. I feel the tender intimacy, the breath-taking vulnerability, and the startling desire to refuse like Simon Peter. This is real, something I cannot ignore, rendering me raw and exposed like never before.

Unlike the other times I’ve had my feet washed, this time I (my shoes) actually need it. This time, I cannot choose how vulnerable I’m willing to be (which isn’t true vulnerability anyway). More than I care to admit, my shoes and I need this. And confronted with that need, one that I cannot fulfill on my own, I am abruptly humbled by my dependence on Mitchay, my family, and this entire community. Not just in this moment, as I learn how to wash my shoes, but every day this year. I cannot do this alone.

In that same breath, I come face to face with my own need for and dependence on God’s grace and mercy too. If I’m a sandal and the mud is human sin and brokenness, I’m definitely the one that hasn’t been cleaned yet. But if grace is getting what one does not deserve, then God’s basin is full to the brim and overflowing, washing all of that away. Over and over and over again, no matter how many times we get stuck in the muck and grime of death and sin, God pulls us out, rinses us clean, and sets us back on the road toward home.

As I watch Mitchay finish what has been to me a loving, compassionate, and yet simple act of grace, I thank her with murakoze cyane cyane[iii], feeling that my words are woefully inadequate. And they are – how do you tell someone that you look at them and see the love of Jesus staring back at you? That out of the eyes of a young black woman, a house worker, there shines more strength and compassion than I’ve seen in plenty more “powerful” people? That my gratitude is for the clean shoes, yes, but also for the unexpected experience of the Divine in a new yet intimately familiar way?

Moments after, Mama Kaliza comes out of the house and is ready to go. I walk to choir with my newly cleaned sandals, feeling the cool wetness of the water left behind on the soles of my feet. And while I know this water will dry, and eventually my shoes will become muddy and dirty again, I resolve to never forget what it felt like to sit and watch Mitchay pour undeserved water and grace onto the sturdy sandals that are carrying me home.

A note on house workers from Emily: House workers are very common here in Rwanda, and they help out the family they work for in a myriad of ways. While experiences vary depending on the family and the way the house worker was connected to that family (family referral, community connection, agency, etc.), Justin Ngoga, a cultural expert here in Rwanda, has put together some information about house workers in general so that our cohort and communities outside of Rwanda might have a bit more context. As I can only speak from my experience inside my family, hopefully this allows for an expanded view of this topic, always recognizing that with anything complex there is always more to learn and understand.

From Justin: Some families will treat their house workers as members of the family, where they will sleep in the house, eat with the family, and are treated with some degrees of respect and compassion. They will still do a lot of the work at the house because that is their job. Other families treat their house workers more separately, where they will sleep outside in a small house, eating after everyone has eaten, and are sometimes not treated with the same dignity as a full member of the family. If at any point things start to get worse, they are free to leave and find a better place.

Some house workers are nannies while others do domestic work – it all depends on what they were hired for. The average payment in Kigali is about 15000 francs (~$16 USD) paid in cash at the end of each month. (Note from Emily: Please note that the cost of living is different in every country in the world, and without taking into consideration many factors, no country’s cost of living should be compared to that of another country.) In most homes house workers are given free room, board, and toiletries. The average age of house workers is between 18 and 30, and some will continue working with their family after marriage. If that is the case, they will often work during the day and go home in the evenings or go home part of the week to see their families. They are paid differently than those staying with the family, ranging from 30000 to 60000 francs (~$32 to ~$65 USD) a month.

[i] Muraho (moo-rah-hoe) hello

[ii] Amazi (ah-maaz-e) water

[iii] Murakoze cyane cyane (moo-rah-co-zay chaan-eh chaan-eh) thank you very, very much

Unimaginable Love

At the end of August, our cohort began orientation in Kigali, Rwanda. After three weeks of orientation in the middle of September, we each got into cars or onto buses for the next step in our year – moving to our host family’s houses and communities. I, along with my host father Dr. David and one of my host siblings, Rebekah, rode a bus east and then north for about 6 hours to the town of Matimba, Rwanda, a few miles south of the border with Uganda. Matimba is my new home and community for the year, and I was both excited and nervous to see what everything would be like.

Our final night together as a cohort, September 12th, we held a small worship service. During the offering, we were each given a small note that a ’18 -’19 YAGM cohort member had written for us during their final closing worship this past summer. They remembered what it was like to be in our shoes at this point in orientation – full of restlessness, holding a deep yearning for what was next and for it to happen, quickly. Terrified, right down to our bones because of the uncertainty we were stepping into and the knowledge that all our preparations could never fully ready us for the ways this year would destroy us and build us back up again, devastate us and save us. Sorrow, at leaving strangers who had become tight-knit friends in just a few weeks. And joy, knowing the communities and families that awaited us were praying desperately for our well-being, waiting to be a place of comfort, safety, and love for the next 10 months of our lives.

And knowing these things, looking back on their entire year, the ’18 -’19 YAGM Rwanda cohort members wrote down their reflections for us to receive. Wrapped in the knowledge of what a heart-changing year we had ahead of us and yet the gut-churning feelings we were experiencing, they offered up what they could, trusting that it would make it into the hands of the person that needed it.

“Keep your heart open for unimaginable love”

This was the short, powerful phrase written on my slip of paper. I don’t know who wrote it, and likely never will. But the message has been weaving itself through many of my experiences since I unfolded it for the first time that Thursday night.

Because of this, the concept of “unimaginable love” has been something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately. I hope to continue to be changed by this year – stronger, more open to the love and injustices in the world, connected to God in new ways, and connected to a family and community across the world.

But when we talk about being connected to a community across the world, I never had a good image in my brain of what this would look like. I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly and so deeply, like I jumped into a pool feet-first and was surprised when I got soaked from head to toe.

But yet, it’s happened. Like the soaking rains that herald the rainy season beginning in October, I have been quickly swept into the rhythm of life and community here.

“Rhythm is something we share in common, you and I, with all the plants and animals and people in the world, and with the stars and moon and sun, and the whole universe beyond our earth” —Langston Hughes

I am grateful for this rhythm in the simple moments – like on the walk back from church choir rehearsal with the women of the group and feeling an unexpected sense of belonging and connection, despite being unable to understand much of the conversation occurring around me. Our love for music and God ties us together in ways that our words cannot express, but our joy is shared and universal. Being fully present in that joy, that’s enough. I’m grateful for this rhythm when, on the walk back from school one day with two of my coworkers Robert and James, we encounter my family’s elderly neighbor Bosco, who I wrote a Facebook post about here.

As spunky and outgoing as usual, he thanked God for our chance encounter and promptly asked for my number so that we may plan a visit in the near future. (He then called a short while later to make sure I had gotten home safely). Being fully present in the unexpected and gracious hospitality, that’s enough.

I’m grateful for this rhythm when I get off the bus at Kagitumba to teach at the nursery school and 20 kids come running up to give me a hug. They then all attempt to hold my hands on the short walk to school as they chatter away in a mix of English and Kinyarwanda. Being present in this beautifully unrestrained joy and love, that’s enough.

And I’m grateful for this rhythm in the moment when during evening tea Mama Kaliza (my host mom) asked to see a picture of my family and then commented on how she wants to talk to my mom Kathy on the phone someday. What she didn’t know was that that day had been particularly hard for me – I was missing my family and might have spent part of the afternoon crying in my room, failing to get a strong enough signal to hear their voices. But the realization of the shared love and connection across the ocean astounded me and wrapped me in comfort and peace. Being fully present in both the sorrow and shared love, that’s enough.

What a gift to be welcomed so quickly into the lives and homes of neighbors and friends, to see the ways in which this unimaginable love is showing up in unexpected ways, and to see how this place is slowly becoming home for me. Despite the fact that I am still learning every day (and I have a strong feeling this won’t be something that ends in a month or six), being fully present in these moments is enough to remind me of what truly matters for this year – showing up and being open to what could be.

The lovely and incredible people of Rwanda, the community of Matimba where I live, and the communities of Bwera and Kagitumba where I teach, have already grabbed hold of my heart. I have been showered in love, accompanied through challenge, and given endless grace every time I make a mistake (which is more often than I’d like to admit). I can already see that leaving next July will tear me in two, filled with the same deep joy, sorrow, and anticipation that followed me here. But for now, I choose not to dwell on that fact. I choose to be present, focusing on finding the places where this unimaginable love shows up, trusting that despite all the ways that my imagination fails to anticipate what could be, that this love will show up – unexpected, unannounced, undeserved, but yet with open arms each and every time.