Thursday, February 28, 2013

one of the reasons...

I realized as I was talking with friends tonight about our time in Malawi that there are so many stories from that life that have shaped who we are, what we believe, and why we do what we do, and I have not shared too many of them.  They felt personal and overwhelming sometimes.  And the fact that we are not going back to Malawi, but rather to South Sudan made me decide not to share much about the "previous" life.  But tonight I remembered some of the reasons why we are continuing on this path, and since we have had a lot of questions like, "Why Africa, don't we have problems here?" I decided it was time to share.

While we were in Malawi we became dear friends with the pastors that we worked with and their families.  There were a few of the wives that I particularly got to know and love, and they were a buffer for me in this new, crazy culture that I had no experience with.  They helped me communicate, understand when to speak and when to accept, and know what my role was expected to be in most situations.  Though my Chichewa was almost nonexistent (save for a few songs and greetings) and their English was rough at best, we made a friendship of sorts.

One of these women had a baby while we were there.  I had walked alongside her as she had bleeding and problems in the pregnancy.  I learned how the Malawians viewed such problems, and took issue with the solutions enough times to step in and take her to a real doctor.  But overall it seemed like things were going well.  When the baby was born 5 weeks early, we worried, but relaxed as he seemed to be tiny but healthy.

When we spent Superbowl Sunday at a friend's house and stayed up to watch the game live, eat chili, and drink soda at 3 am, we were already awake when the call came to us that the baby had died.  No explanation.  Oh, and the mom was hemorrhaging - which was apparently a totally separate issue.

As we left our kids with our missionary friends and went to the hospital we were in shock.  We had no idea what had happened, we just knew (because we were told) that I needed to help the women in the family collect the baby and bury him and Shawn needed to be with the father.  The mom was not able to leave because she was recovering from sever blood loss, and the father was not allowed to come because it was not culturally appropriate.  We were told that because the baby was only 5 days old, the father (or any male) would not attend the funeral.  In fact, there would not even be a coffin because they did not make them for babies that young because so many died.


We arrived, I checked on the mom, and then we gathered this tiny little bundle in our arms and filled three vehicles with women from the family to go to find a place to bury him.  When we got to the cemetery, my role was to talk with the guard, persuade him to find us a plot, and then pay him.  (Later I realized that this really was culturally appropriate as the "boss" of the father, though not an absolute.  At any rate, it was a few thousand kwacha as long as we did most of the digging, and I consider it one of those times that even if I got taken advantage of, it was ok.)  The guard started the grave, then the women took turns finishing it.

The thing you remember at times like that are strange.  There was line of ants going by.  You know, one of those long lines that you don't want to step in the middle of because you will be swarmed and bitten.  We carefully avoided it.  I noticed that the women had many kitenges, or the pretty cloth wraps that they tied around their waists and used for everything from tying babies to their backs to laying on the ground for a rest in the shade.  I also had one on that day, since we had come from our friend's superbowl party and I was not feeling as appropriately dressed as I wanted to be.  The sky was blue and the the guards were standing back respectfully, yet not having a lot of emotion.  Actually, the whole scene was emotionless - not at all what you expect from an African funeral.  But then again, this was just a baby.

The grave was dug about 3-4 feet deep, then another foot or two under the solid ground so that the body could be placed in a cave like area where animals could not dig it up easily.  The women started taking off the extra kitenges they had worn and handed them to the person holding the baby.  It became clear to me that they were wrapping this tiny little body in a soft bundle of bright, beautiful cloth.  The contradiction was absurd to me in my state of shock.  I also took mine off and realized that my last minute grab of this cloth was a gift  from God, as the women rewarded me with sad smiles.  Then the grandmother herself climbed in and placed her grandson into the hole. I had to keep reminding myself that this was her grandson, a real baby boy, a child.  The whole scene was too much for me to process. After a few handful of dirt were thrown in and I was asked to pray (which I had to do in English, and was thankful that most people could not understand because I have never felt more at a loss for words) the guards came and finished filling it in.

Grandma cried for the first time at that point.  It was a silent cry, but as I reached out and held her hand tears came freely for both of us.  We walked back to the cars and went to the hospital.  The women were abnormally silent, and it grated on my nerves.  I had never gone anywhere in Malawi with a group of women where there was silence!  There were songs for every occasion - weddings, engagements, birthdays, special feasts, bible studies - even riding in a car together!  Yet there was no song for his baby and his family, no outpouring of grief.  In some ways I longed for the typical wails and ululations that one expected from this culture.

A few days later the mother still had not been released because her paperwork had gotten lost.  The parents had been told that the reason for their baby's death was that while the mother was in surgery the nurses had tried to feed the child.  He had thrown up and was left by himself and suffocated.  That's what we were told.  The truth is, everything in these situations becomes so blurry and the communication is so bad that we may never know what really happened.  We don't even know what surgery the mother had, since her paperwork was lost - though to my knowledge she has not had another child.  Now the hospital would not release her, and she was stuck in a room with 7 other mothers who were in various stages of labor and delivery.  She had text me earlier in the day to say that her eyes were swollen shut from grief, even though she "knew" she should not be so upset because he "became late" - it happened all the time.

I didn't often use my status as a white person to my advantage in Malawi - we usually attracted enough attention wherever we went without trying.  However that day I marched into the office, demanded her charts (which they suddenly and miraculously found-though they were not complete), threw some money on the table, got a "paid in full receipt," and took her home.  This was torture.  This was unthinkable to me in my western mind.  Yet this was not the only baby that "became late" while I was there.  And this was not the last time I dealt with corrupt people in places of influence, or the hopelessness of the common people who accepted that this was their plight.

My experience may be different from other people's in Africa - even in Malawi.  We were basically on our own there - learning in the day by day and making a lot of mistakes in the process.  I have realized that our experiences were often different from other missionaries.  That was one of the the biggest draws we had to World Harvest Mission and their amazing team mentality, because we didn't want to do this alone again.  But whether it is different or not, it is still real - it is still my experience.  And it is a very tangible, raw thing that made my heart African.  It is one of those things that made me know I had to be there.  South Sudan is very different from Malawi in many ways. However, there is a saying I have heard ex-pats all over the continent say:  "This is Africa."  Some things are the same all over.    Read my teammates blogs (on the side of this page) or the Myhre's blog about being doctors in Uganda.  The things that people on this continent face, accept as normal, and deal with each day are things that should shock us.

I have been given much indeed.  If you are reading this, then you have too - even if (like me) you do not always feel that way.  We have been blessed in ways that really make no sense to me when I compare it to so many people in other countries.  And this is just one of my answers to "Why Africa."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

the one where I whine until it comes full circle...

Ok, I admit it - I am grumpy.  I am looking outside at yet another grey, colorless day with white flakes coming down, and it is ticking me off.  I really hate winter.

And I know - I should be thankful because I missed the month of January while support raising in the south.  I should be thankful that I am looking at just another month of real winter, then spring will be here.  I should be thankful that I am in a warm, dry house - even if that house isn't mine.  Maybe especially because that house isn't mine.  Even in our travels we have been housed, cared for, and loved.

But honestly, I just feel grumpy.  And impatient. And ornery.  And though my original hope was to get on here and write about it as it fell away from me, I realize that is not happening this time, and I have a choice to make.


I don't want to make a choice.

(Please read above line in the best whiney voice you can conjure up.)

What do I want?
I want to be somewhere warm and sunny.  I want to see blue skies.  I want to feel like I have a home and feel settled again.  At least a place that is where I reside for the majority of my time.  I want to be packing to go to South Sudan soon - or at least to training in Colorado.  I want to be typing a blog that tells you that after this week of praying together we had gobs of support come in and we are headed out in a few weeks....
wait.  uh oh.

And then, as I sit writing, it comes to me.  Once again I am hit smack in the gut with my flesh.

I realized even as I was typing up the invite to have you all pray last week that my ultimate goal was to help God see how spiritual I was and that I was "getting it" - whatever it was that he is wanting us to learn - and that we could "move on" now.  I understood that my attempts to manipulate God and pull the wool over his eyes were lame and pitiful at the very least - and blatant sin if named correctly.  Yet that didn't stop me.

Because, you see, I also knew that even if my motives weren't completely pure, most of you praying were sincerely praying for us with hearts that believe and love and desire.  We can't do that for ourselves very often without all the other garbage in there.  The self focus and plans that we make for ourselves often blur our view and motives.  But usually when we are praying for others, we are doing it because we have real empathy, desire, and longing for them and about them that is really about what we are praying for.  In a very real sense, I needed you to "stand in the gap" for us.  Yes, for support raising, but also simply for us.  For our hearts, minds, emotions, souls, desires, feelings, wants, and weaknesses.

So I guess, even though though the sky is still grey, the sun seems as though it is never coming out again, and the reports coming in last week were the same numbers as the week before, I am thankful.  Thankful that I am not doing this alone.  That I have friends who read this stupid, whiney, all-about-Heather blog and still love me.  Still pray.  And believe for me when I can't.  And do it in ways that are begging for God's perfect plan to be carried out to completion - even when it feels like I am fighting it every step of the way sometimes!  I am thankful for you.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


One of the things that I have realized on this trip is how amazing it is to have freedom - simply the freedom to drive cross country and enjoy all the beautiful views.  Whether it was white sandy beaches or snow covered fields, sparkling blue skies or dark, foreboding clouds, flat land that goes for miles or rolling mountains in Tennessee - we have seen some amazing things on this trip!

A few days ago I heard from my step-brother’s mom.  She was letting me know that Richie has been sentenced and moved to a high security federal prison in upstate NY.  It is about 3 hours away for me in Albany, and 7 for her. It's sometimes called "The Siberia of NY." This is a big difference from where he was before, when most of the family could go during visiting hours.  I was sad for him, as I thought about the lack of visitors he will probably receive there. Not to mention that it is no longer a simple county jail – but instead a prison where many infamous prisoners have been housed for rape, murder, and kidnapping.  This is the place that my brother will be living for the next 25 years to life.  His mistakes have cost his freedom.  

The pastor at the church we attended this week was talking about the fact that nothing that we do can change the end results of this life if we know Jesus.  He was talking about the fact that the freedom that we have to choose Heaven was given to us at the ultimate price, and there's nothing we can do to change that.  We are positionally set.  However, there are things in the world that we face, choices we make and the flesh that we fight.  Sometimes we make the wrong choices.  And most of the time these choices are made knowingly - sometimes even in the face of the idea that we are "safe" anyway, because of God's grace.  Though that may be true, we still lose a lot as a Christian when we decide to live as though Heaven is the only thing that matters.  When we don't align our everyday thoughts, choices, desires, and actions with what God has in mind for us, we sacrifice a lot of the freedom that we have as Christians.  

As I was thinking about this alongside of the stuff happening with my brother I could see obvious consequences in his life.  He has since professed Christ, and  after much communication with him including a visit, I believe he is sincere. But his choices that he made have consequences that cannot be erased.  He will not see his daughters grow up, he will not be able to enjoy the ocean's surf for a very long time, he will not be able to choose what he wants to have for dinner or when to wake up and go to bed - the simplest things are decided for him now.  

Though we may not all have things that seem that obvious, there are so many things that keep us prisoner and take away our freedoms.  I have watched as friends lose spouses because they choose to believe the grass is greener elsewhere.  This brings an onslaught of death and decay to everyone in their path, not just them.  We see friends being caught up in pornography because they make the decision to believe that their right to own a computer and have unlimited Internet is more important than their goal of thinking upon things that are holy and pure.  In my own life, I see prison walls come up when I choose to believe the lies that God is not for me, and that he does not love me, take joy in me, and delight in me.  I get trapped in anger, self-pity, and arrogance when I choose to live this way.  

But there is real freedom when we open our eyes to these things.  Even in his physical prison my brother can experience freedom that comes from knowing Jesus in real and intimate ways and believing that his Word is Truth.  I am so thankful for a Father who wraps me in his arms and shows me not only who I am in him and his love for me, but the freedom that comes from living in his will.  And then ultimately, the peace.  

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


I woke up this morning and realized that we have been on the road raising support for a month now.  And then I had a severe case of homesickness.

This is definitely not a reflection of the places we have been and the people with whom we have been staying.  We have had an abundance of amazing hosts who have spoiled us with good meals, games, laughter, prayers, adventures, and love and who made us feel right at home.  It is simply an observation of where my emotions are right now.

And while I miss my friends and church family in Troy a ton, it's not just about the relationships.  I miss going out my door and driving to the grocery store without a GPS.  I miss pulling out a puzzle and sitting for hours with it all over the table.  I miss the knowing all the little quirks of my own place - what that weird bump in the night noise was, etc.  I miss knowing what radio station plays the Christian music that I usually listen too.  I miss knowing where is the best place to buy yet another bunch of socks for the little guys because they have "misplaced" so many again!  I miss familiarity and feeling "at home."

I understood that this is the life we have signed up for, but it has become more real to me on this trip.  As I read blogs of my friends who are overseas, it is a constant struggle in their own lives.  No one place feels completely like home anymore.  As we head back to Troy next month I have no doubt that we, as a family, will have to work through that as it hits in an even more real way.

We are aliens and strangers in this world.  We are sojourners.
(I have to admit, my boys think the idea of being an alien is way too cool!)

So as I listen to Building 429's song, Where I Belong, I can understand those words in a different way again.  "All I know is I'm not home yet, this is not where I belong..."
Thanks for praying for us! 

Another in the fire

Maybe you don't know what the process to move overseas is like, but there was a lot of what we thought of as jumping through hoops ...