Sunday, May 31, 2015

Celebrating Mother's Day in a Church Full of Orphans

How many orphans under the age of 25 were present during your church's Mother's Day celebration?

Today I sat in a church service celebrating Dominican Mother's Day, surrounded by 10 children and young adults whose mothers have passed away (4 of whom lost their mothers within the past year) and another 15 who do not live with their mothers for reasons including abandonment, abuse, mental illness, and extreme poverty. In addition to those 25, there are 4 other girls who stayed home today because going to church on Mother's Day is too painful for them since the loss of their mothers. 

I watched as these children and young people wiped tears from their eyes as we sang songs about moms. I watched them lower their eyes when mothers were named and honored from the pulpit. I watched them put their arms around each other in silence and give an understanding nod. 

You might ask - Isn't that torture? Shouldn't the church be more sensitive? Shouldn't more acknowledgment be given to those children on Sundays like today? Don't they deserve more than a line in a prayer asking for comfort and peace?

I'm going to tell you something.

You're asking the wrong questions.

Look back at the first question at the top of this blog entry - How many orphans under the age of 25 were present during your church's Mother's Day celebration?

If your answer was 0, or if you had to struggle to think of one or two orphans (by death, abandonment, or abuse), then I respectfully and humbly suggest that your church has bigger questions to be asking than those which invoke judgment on a congregation that is following Christ's command to love and care for orphans. 

We are imperfect people trying to fulfill a perfect God's purposes in the world. That means that we imperfectly try to care for orphans. We imperfectly try to be sensitive and end up saying the wrong things. We imperfectly try to provide orphans with families, house-parents, and church families that will never fully take the place of their biological families. But the key word there is "try." God's call to care for orphans is not optional. He even goes as far as to call it "pure and faultless religion," - the call to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27) The world says that orphans aren't our responsibility. The world says that it's the government's job to look out for orphaned, abused, and abandoned children. We fault government agencies and child protective services for imperfectly doing the job that God calls His own people to do. We pass off the responsibility because it's easy to look the other way. But I refuse to be polluted by the world's beliefs about God's unmistakable call to the Church. I refuse to accept the lie that orphan care is not for everyone. If you have received adoption into the family of Christ as I have, your response to God's gracious gift should be the extension of that gift to those who are in great need here on earth. We are called to be imitators of God, so if God did it, I'm pretty sure I'm supposed to do it, too.

So sponsor an orphaned child. Become a foster parent. Investigate adoption as an option for your family. Use the financial resources God has blessed you with to enable others to adopt. Refuse to be complacent. Ask God to send orphans your way and show you how He wants you to be involved in their lives. 

Maybe next year on Mother's Day it won't be so hard to answer that first question.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Choice of Re-Entry

I'll admit, I never paid attention when people talked about "re-entry." They were referring to the period of time that includes the last moments a missionary spends in her host culture and the first several months she spends back in her home culture (in my case America in general, not Arizona). Re-entry seemed so far away, so speculative, and so hypothetical to me that I figured I would pay attention if, and only if, God called me to leave the Dominican Republic one day. If I'm being honest, that call came before I ever expected it to and now I write with only 10 days left in Monte Plata before I pack what I can fit into a couple suitcases and get an exit-stamp in my passport without knowing when it will be stamped again.

In 10 days I will re-enter American life...which means what, exactly? 

People warn you - some missionaries say that their period of re-entry was the hardest part of their entire missionary experience. They say it is harder than living in a third world country without constant water and electricity, harder than adjusting to an unknown and misunderstood culture, harder than living life in your second language, harder than making new friendships and saying goodbye to them. They say it is lonely, isolating, and frustrating. They say that you won't realize how much you've actually changed until you get back to your home culture and see how different you are from others. They say you won't realize how much others have changed until you see that your friends and family have lives that have continued while you were away which means they have new friendships, new support systems, and new activities that don't include you.

I am anticipating all of that. I know this will be difficult. I don't think I'm going into this blind. I believe that, by the grace of God and with the support of my closest friends, my incredible family, and my caring and loving fiance, I will be able to navigate the stormy waters of re-entry into my new American life. 

But the thing that scares me is my re-entry into consumerist, self-centered America (and sometimes even the church) - as one writer recently wrote, re-entry into...
..."a world where a pair of shoes can last longer, have more worth, be treated with more value, than a fondled, raped and discarded 9 year-old-girl."
...a world in which "we let blinders be stapled to our hearts" because the pain on the other side of the world doesn't affect us or our family and we "can't do anything about it anyway," so we choose to be apathetic. 
...a world in which we "keep up with the Kardashians or whatever flash of skin is being flaunted on red carpets - when there are little girls being devoured on bare concrete floors."
...a world in which "our churches are fundraising for building expansions and plusher chairs while children [around the world] are dying."
And as I write today, I understand that re-entry into the physical, geographical land of America is not the scary part of will happen in 10 days. Re-entry into a culture of self-love, self-indulgence, and self-prioritization is the scary part - but choosing to re-enter that culture is a choice. It is a choice that every single one of us has - the choice to wake up each day and re-enter the culture of self or the culture of selfless others-focused-love. God's work of "Cross-Shaped love" is the call to not turn away out of distance or convenience but to consciously turn your face directly towards global suffering - because that is where the face of Jesus is fixed. And that call is everywhere, every day.

"You are where you are to help others where they are...Caring isn't a Christian's sideline hobby. Caring is a Christian's complete career. It is our job, our point, our purpose."

My realization about re-entry is this: Re-entry is my daily decision. It is my daily decision to re-enter the world where God has currently placed me bearing the mark of Christ and spending myself for others or the decision to re-enter the world-of-me, turning my eyes away from the suffering of my fellow man (whether my neighbor in America, my students in Monte Plata, or a widowed mother in Iraq) and focusing instead on my own personal happiness and fulfillment. My identity, my calling, and my purpose does not change when I say goodbye to "Kristin the foreign missionary" in 10 days. In fact, I want to say goodbye to her. I want to say goodbye to every single part of my identity that is not "Kristin the Jesus follower, the others lover, the God imitator." I want to choose each day to leave the culture-of-me and enter the culture of loving as Christ has loved me.

Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children. And walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Ephesians 5:1-2

*Quotes taken from this article.

Monday, April 27, 2015

An Intercessor in our Grief

We walk in silence through the vacant streets of town. Monte Plata never looks like this on a Monday morning. The usual hustle and bustle stops as we pass. People come out of their stores, shops, and homes. Colorful umbrellas dot the shuffling mass as hundreds of us slowly follow the car covered in flowers and surrounded by mourners. We are on our way to the cemetery. 

We are dressed in white, some come in their work clothes. Hundreds of students in their blue and pink school uniforms walk with their backpacks on as they follow the car that carries their teacher's body through the streets. There are no classes in our town today. 

We embrace, walk arm-in-arm, nod in acknowledgment when we see those we know. Words are few. What is there to say? 

I look next to me and see a mother with her three young children who are students at our school. She brought them to walk with us. I look over and see a group of our middle school girls walking together quietly. I wonder, "Which one of these girls is next?" 

Today we mourn the loss of a daughter, mother, sister, friend, and teacher. She is a victim of senseless, merciless domestic violence. Her boyfriend now sits in jail a city away, charged with her murder. They took him from the Monte Plata jail yesterday for fear for his safety here. Even on the way back from the cemetery I see a mob of people outside of the Monte Plata jail looking for him. He robbed a family of their beloved sister. He robbed two young girls of their mother. Monte Plata cries for justice. 

About a month ago I was conducting interviews with each one of our students. These interviews would be translated and sent out to their sponsors as part of our quarterly sponsorship projects. The interview questions were meant to be light-hearted, fun, and interesting. I asked them "Why do you think God made the sky blue?" and "What would you do if you were invisible for a day?" One of the questions asked, "If you could make a rule that everyone in the world had to follow, what would it be?"

I expected to receive the usual answers, that everyone has to be nice or that everyone needs to love each other or that all kids need to eat candy every day. They're kids, I wasn't expecting anything incredibly deep. 

And I definitely wasn't expecting over 20 children to answer this way.

"I would say that no one is allowed to mistreat women." 
"I would say that no one can abuse moms."
"I would say that no men can kill women."
"I would say that you can't abuse ladies in their house."

The follow-up question was "Why is that the rule you would choose?"

"Because that happens to lots of women."
"Because there are a lot of ladies in my neighborhood who are abused."
"Because women get killed all the time by men."

Many of our children see domestic abuse every single day. They hear it through the wooden walls of their homes. They watch it in their neighborhoods. They hear it, as do I, from across the street. They listen as punches are thrown, as horrible, ugly insults are hurled, and as women scream in pain and in shame. This is life for women in Monte Plata. This is life for women all over the world. It happens in America, too. It happens in your neighborhood. It's just that the walls are thicker in middle-class America. The houses are farther apart. The secrets are more carefully guarded. 

I'm not writing today with answers. I feel as hopeless as many of you. I look into the faces of our little girls here and wonder which ones are already involved in the cycle of abuse. I wonder where it will lead them. I hope and pray that we are not walking through the streets of Monte Plata one day behind a car holding one of our students. I did that last summer. I never want to do it again. 

The common refrain here over the past several days has been that there are no words. There are simply no words in situations like this. The Lord is the only comforter, the only One who can turn bitterness into forgiveness, and the dark ugliness of sin into something beautiful that still brings Him glory. For now, we pray. We pray in our own weakness. We are not without sin. We are not without guilt. We are sinners just as the man who sits in jail today is a sinner. But the Spirit intercedes for us. The Holy Spirit brings peace, comfort, forgiveness, new life, and glorious restoration. Please pray for girls and women all over the world who need His intercession today. They are your neighbors. They are your friends. They are your sisters and mothers. Pray for justice and protection of the abused. Pray for restoration for the abusers. Pray for peace. Pray for Love. 

"In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" Romans 8:26

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When the World is Bigger than Monte Plata

I share this blog a bit hesitantly. I didn't write this letter for you. I wrote this letter to my state senators, hoping to give them yet another reason, another petition, another motivation to act against ISIS. This morning's headline of 90 more captured Assyrian Christians was too much for me to handle. We have Kids Alive sites in the Middle East - our kids, our staff, too close for comfort to this fighting. After a conversation and time of prayer with my students here, Mick suggested that I write to my senators. If you read this letter and find yourself nodding your head in agreement, write to yours too. You can find out how at this website. All I can do from Monte Plata is pray and talk about what's going on. What can you do?


I am writing to you today from a dusty little town called Monte Plata in the Dominican Republic. I was born and raised in Arizona, went to Arcadia High School and graduated in the top 1% of my class, graduated Summa Cum Laude from ASU in 2009, taught for 4 years at a Title I school in Glendale, and was a Rodel Exemplary Teacher Semi-Finalist. I now live in a town with limited electricity, inconsistent water supply, millions of mosquitoes, and the most abusive cycle of poverty I have ever seen. I work with Kids Alive International and we seek to rescue at-risk children and provide them with quality, holistic care in order to create a generation of Dominicans who are able to break the cycle of poverty that plagues this country and it's neighbor, Haiti. I work at a school in which 160 children learn, eat, bathe, cry, fight, and struggle each day.  Our children are abused, abandoned, orphaned, hungry, dirty, and unloved. They understand suffering more than most. They inspire me every day with their questions, their fight for maturity, and their drive to do their best despite all the odds being stacked against them. 

Can I tell you what they asked me today? I was in our 8th grade classroom getting ready to begin math class. We were praying and I mentioned that we need to pray for the situation with ISIS in Syria. I told them that 90 more men, women, and children had been abducted yesterday. They are aware of the situation in Syria because Kayla Mueller was my cousin's neighbor and childhood babysitter. My cousin visited me in Monte Plata last year so Kayla's story was something with which my students could tangibly relate. They understand that the victims of ISIS are real people with real families. One of my students raised her hand before we prayed and asked me, "But, Profe Kristin, why isn't anyone doing anything? They are killing children!" 

What a simple question. "Why isn't anyone doing anything?" When this question comes from the mouth of a young woman who has never had running water in her house, from the mouth of a young man who has never gone a day in his life without being left in the dark when the power goes out, from the mouth of a girl who lives with the pain of hunger is each and every weekend, from the mouth of a boy who has watched his mother die from cancer on a dirt floor with no medical care..."Why isn't anyone doing anything?" takes on a whole new meaning. My students could easily say the same about their situation - about their suffering - about their day-to-day life. But they're not asking you to do anything about their suffering. They are asking on behalf of their Christian brothers and sisters in Syria who are suffering for their faith, who are living in fear, who are being persecuted and killed every day. Why aren't we doing anything? 

My students know that I am not like them. They know that I am from America. They know that I have money with which I can travel on an airplane and buy food whenever I need it. They know that our lives are very, very different. And they know that America has power. They know that America can do something. They just don't understand why we haven't acted. I don't either. 

Please, on behalf of my students here in Monte Plata, on behalf of my Christian brothers and sisters in Syria and around the world, please do something. It is time to act. The suffering is too great. The excuses must end. 

Kristin and her students in Monte Plata

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A Bit of Honesty

The weeks roll into another. Lesson plans are written and taught, children are disciplined, water runs out, electricity is turned on and off, over and over again, internet cuts out in the middle of important conversations, fourth grade boys get into fights, quizzes are graded with discouragement, sponsorship projects are done, letters are translated, and kids are loved for 8 hours a day and then sent home to the real world. Normal days, normal weeks. I used to say that "the only routine here is that there is no routine." I find it amazing that such a physically-uncomfortable place has become so comfortable, so routine, and so normal to me. 

It's very tempting for me to only share the good stories - the stories with the happy endings - the "smiling kids giving me hugs" pictures that make it seem like every day of ministry here is successful in human-terms. 

But reality is that it is hard. It is really, really hard. 

Juana Prenza, who began the ministry here in Monte Plata with her husband, is known for saying "If the kids at our school are behaving like angels, we don't need this school anymore." The fact is, we are working with many of the roughest, neediest, most abused, neglected, hungry, and abandoned kids in Monte Plata. There are going to be many, many difficult, challenging, make-you-want-to-give-up-and-go-home moments. That's the job. And for North-Americans, that's the job in your second language and second culture.

So the weeks roll into another. The normal school stuff happens. Life happens. The days bleed into each other...
  • And teachers cry because they feel helpless to inspire change in their students who come to school with absolutely no example of respectful or safe behavior. 
  • And a school psychologist tears up as he talks to our staff about the reason our children behave so poorly in the lunch room - almost every single one of them had never eaten a meal at a table on a real plate before they came to our school. 
  • And a 7th grade girl cries in your office as she tells you that her mother said "I wish you would have died when you were born."
  • And another middle school girl can't get more than 2 words out at a time as she sits with you at your desk and tells you through her sobs how "heavy her heart feels" ever since her mom passed away unexpectedly last year. 
  • And a student's mother comes to your house late at night asking for money, and you have to turn her away because you have already loaned her more than you know is wise.
  • And you break up a fight between two young students in the street and lead them back to the school's office because even though they're uttering curse words under their breath at you, you know that discipline and consistency is the best thing for them. 
  • And a 6th grade boy calls you some foul names in front of his friends, so you calmly wait until you can speak to him alone and explain that you hurt more for him and his future than you do for yourself after being called those names - because you know that he'll call the wrong person those names out in the street one day and end up in a horrible Dominican prison, or worse. 
  • And the older sister of one of your students sits with you and describes how scared she is for her sister, because the internet makes it so easy for kids to find things they shouldn't be finding at younger and younger ages. 

And that's all in a "normal" week. That is the routine. And I sit in my house on Saturday night and think about it all starting over again on Monday and I feel helpless and tired and ineffective. I'm so tired that even leaving my house and having to live in my second culture seems too overwhelmingly exhausting that I'd rather not even try. I'm so hungry for spiritual community that listening to another online sermon by myself seems like it'd be more discouraging that soul-feeding at this point. It's not all smiling kids and adventure. It's a lot of monotonous, soul-wrenching days that leave you empty, exhausted, and confused. And those days are normal now. 

My prayer is not that the Lord would liberate me from days and weeks like this. My prayer is not that God would make things easier. My prayer it not that God would take me away from here.

  • I pray He would take me farther out of my comfort zone - even though my comfort zone is all the uncomfortable things described above - so that I depend more on Him.
  • I pray He would make each moment special again, like they all were when I first got here and was still in the honeymoon phase of missionary life. 
  • I pray He would give me renewed strength and renewed energy to continue in ministry. 
  • I pray He would give me a heart of thankfulness that sees beauty in my host culture instead of only frustration.
  • I pray He would keep bringing us the toughest, hardest kids that make me want to cry and run away every day, because they're the kids who need to be here the most.
  • I pray He would show me His face in the reality and in the days and weeks that bleed into each other. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas in Monte Plata

A glimpse of the Christmas festivities with our 
Kids Alive International kids in Monte Plata, Dominican Republic.

The Scary Part of Christmas Vacation

For those of you who are parents, I imagine you've been to some sort of school meeting in which teachers and administrators speak about how you can help your children at home. They spoke about discipline, study habits, homework help, or the importance of being involved in your child's academic life while at home.

Now I want you to imagine that you're sitting in a school meeting and you hear the school director say "Remember, parents, not to serve your children alcohol during vacation this year. Don't send them to the store or to the bar to buy alcohol for you. Those places are dangerous. Don't let them drink alcohol in your home. Don't let them leave to a friend's house after dark. This is Christmas season, one of the most dangerous seasons of the year here, and you need to know where your child is at all times. So remember, don't let your child drink alcohol or get drunk this Christmas." 

This is just part of the advisory speech our school director, Deborah, gave to almost 90 parents last week at our last parent meeting before Christmas break. Remember, we are not a high school. We are an elementary school, serving preschool age children (4-5 years old) through 8th graders (12-14 years old). Deborah is an elementary school principal, warning parents not to let their young children drink alcohol or get drunk during vacation. 

This is where I live. This is where we serve. These are the battles we are fighting. This is the darkness that threatens to swallow us nearly every day.  This is the fear that literally brings tears to my eyes as I write this from the comfort of my parents' home in America, knowing that I'm so far from my kids this morning. This is the guilt I carry in being away for even a few days at a time. This is the worry that will constantly be on my mind until I arrive back in Monte Plata in 14 days. Until I see every single one of their faces back at school or back home at Casa Monte Plata, I will worry. And the worry won't stop there. Sometimes the psychological, emotional, and disciplinary consequences of time away from us take weeks to sort through with our kids. 

In the mean time, I ask you to join me in praying consistently, praying fervently, and praying powerfully for our children while they are away from us. Our school is closed until January 7. Our students and their families have been provided with a bag of food and supplies to help them have enough to eat while their children aren't eating 2 meals a day at our school, but what we are able to provide won't be enough for them until January 7. Pray that their families are able to find work, earn money, and use that money wisely so our children won't go hungry. Pray that they are kept safe, safe from abuse in their homes, safe from the dangers in the streets, and safe from emotional and spiritual darkness.  Our Casa Monte Plata residential facility will be closed until Jan 5. Our children have all gone on vacation for the holidays, some with relatives, others with friends or church members in the community. While we love that our children have the opportunity to spend time off-campus, many with family, we are realistic about the effects this vacation may have on them. Pray that they are kept safe from familial battles, safe from threats they are not accustomed to facing while they live within the safety and security of the Casa Monte Plata walls, and safe from the enemy's schemes that jeopardize their spiritual, physical, and emotional wellbeing. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

What will I remember?

I recently spent the day at a ministry event that, if I'm going to be honest, left me completely exhausted, frustrated, and wanting to retreat into my own little world for a few days. I came home and thought "Ok, I've done my time, paid my dues, now it's 'me time' and I shouldn't feel guilty about closing myself off to ministry tomorrow." I sat down to journal about my day and began to write defeatedly about each thing that had aggravated me. But as I wrote each line, the Holy Spirit began His quiet, gentle work in my heart. 

I angrily wrote: "And the boys said .... and were acting like ... and made me feel so ..." And the Lord whispered: "And do you also remember when they looked up at you and smiled and said "thank you?" Do you remember when they got scared and instinctively reached out to hold your hand? Do you remember when they sat down next to you and put their heads on your shoulder? Do you remember when they grinned at you with lips and cheeks coated in bright blue chicle ice cream? Do you remember the look on their faces when they tried on brand new, never been worn, tags-still-on church shirts and felt like the most special little boys in the entire world?"

Each time I began to write about a new frustration, God would gently remind me of a way in which that exact person or situation had also been a ministering agent of His grace, His joy, or His beauty to me that day. It's all about perspective. God simply asked me, "Kristin, what will you choose to remember about today?" Did I want to remember the frustration, the anger, and the disappointment? Is that really how I wanted to record that day in my memory forever? Is that really what the Lord wanted me to store in my heart from those hours spent doing His work? I had a choice to make - remember the flesh, or remember the Spirit.

I choose to remember the moments of joy in the midst of frustration.
I choose to remember the hope in the midst of seemingly endless disappointment.
I choose to remember the glimpses of eternity. 

Why do I choose to remember the good? Because God remembers not my sin, not the endless list of ways I've disappointed Him, not my selfishness, my anger, nor my guilt. God looks at me and remember Jesus - His sacrifice on the cross for the worst of these. In His great mercy, He extends not an attitude of frustration nor blame but rather a heart of forgiveness and grace. Who am I to extend the opposite to those who I am called to love and serve? 

I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, 
and I will not remember your sins. 
-Isaiah 43:25
I will forgive (be merciful toward) their iniquity, 
and I will remember their sin no more. 
- Jeremiah 31:34, again in Hebrews 8:12

I choose to remember in others what I want the Lord to remember in me. I choose to extend grace in my memories of frustrating events with people who disappointed me that day.

What will you choose to remember about today? What will you choose to remember about him or her? What will you choose to remember about this season of your life? 

Remember grace. Remember mercy. Remember Him.