Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Somewhere over Sudan...

Somewhere Over Sudan…

June 15, 2008

I am currently somewhere over Sudan, hurtling through space in a long metal KLM tube, heading for Amsterdam. This is been a Spring to remember. In March, I was privileged to be in the Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic, in April I traveled throughout eastern China and South Korea. Now, I am returning home from an intensely emotional experience in East Africa with my wife, daughter, and a team of students. It has been a unique experience to enjoy so many varied cultures in such a short time. My life is rich.

There are so many thoughts that echo through my mind as I leave Uganda. Our departure was a difficult, gut-wrenching experience, softened only by the thought that I may be able to return someday to again meet friends that have become so dear.

What is it that compels one to return to the red dirt and lush tropics of Uganda? The journey is long and difficult. The travel in-country can be slow and treacherous. The malaria medicine? Mind-warping. Still, I know I must return. I cannot stay away from the “Pearl of Africa.”

It’s not the beauty of the flourishing banana trees, the mangoes hanging large and juicy, or the allure of the coveted coffee beans that grow wild along the rutted roads and trails. It’s certainly not the food. Even so, the rice, beans (and occasional rock) and chapati were tasty and satisfying. It’s not the “glamour” of traveling to Africa; the flights are long and cramped, and you wonder if you can even endure.

It’s none of those things; and, so, I keep asking myself, “What is it that makes me want to return to Uganda, when I have barely left?” We haven’t even reached the Mediterranean! Am I insane? In the last eleven weeks, I’ve endured as many international flights; touched the ground of seven very different countries on three continents, and been away from my peaceful bed for thirty-eight of those seventy-seven days.

So what is it? I think I know. I’ve considered the reasons that I am drawn back after barely leaving the East African humidity. It’s Ronald’s haunting eyes that betray a life of hurt and abandonment. It’s Robert and Betty and Samuel and Alice and Vanessa; five beautiful children abandoned by parents who were, no doubt, suffering themselves as they made the gut-wrenching decision to dispose of their children. It’s 100 year-old “Grandma” Alice sitting in the dirt in front of her red mud house and refusing help as she struggles with her stick to get up one more time. It’s strong and immoveable Prossy, who loves 200 striking children with everything that is within her. That’s it. That’s why I must go back.

The scale of need in Sub-Saharan Africa is beyond understanding. We were working outside of Kampala, in Gganda village; just one township of many hundreds or even thousands across the continent. One cannot comprehend the extent of the suffering in this part of the world, let alone recognize the depth of need in earthquake-shattered China, or typhoon-battered Burma. It is staggering.

In the face of such overwhelming need, there is a temptation to ignore what is happening to these people one-by-one. There is a temptation to simply throw up your hands and berate the African people for not taking care of their own.

In truth, they are taking care of their own. I’ve learned that the grandmothers are the heroes of Africa. While enduring the grief of losing their adult children to the scourge of AIDS, they are taking in their grandchildren; and, they are taking in children who are not their own flesh and blood. Neighbors care for children in the village who cannot care for themselves. Still, there is too much to do.

We can say that foreign aid is causing the ruin of the African continent by causing her residents to become dependent on the help of others. We can say that the white man only cares for himself and that the West isn’t doing enough to alleviate the suffering. We can blame other people and do nothing, while looking at uncomfortable photographs and sipping our four dollar designer drinks. We can do all of those things and not help anyone.

There is another alternative. There is something we can do. We can come to the aid of the widows. We can take up the case of the fatherless. We can work to relieve the oppressed. You see, the West is actually producing many hundreds, and maybe thousands of people who are answering the cry of those in need, in spite of how they ended up in their desperate situation.
I’m not talking about the UN, or USAID, or any of the many other governmental organizations pouring needed money into Africa, even though the work they do is valuable and necessary.
I’m talking about Sylvia, from New York, who is building a school for needy children just north of Kampala. I’m talking about Allison, who is researching AIDS prevention at Harvard, and hoping to slow the plague that is killing a generation. I’m talking about Mike and Lori, who are coming alongside motivated African nationals and funneling the resources of the West into Uganda to bring change to Africa through visionary Africans. I know these people. Simply said, the work they do is good.

I’m talking about Jeannie, my wife, giving up her comfort to cradle little Susan who smiled her first smile in maybe months. I’m talking about Hannah, my sixteen year-old daughter, who helps provide monthly support for Alice and has become “Mama Hannah” to a little girl who needs to know she is loved. I’m talking about Jill, a teacher who stepped away from her everyday life to provide comfort to hurting children who have lost their parents. I’m talking about Mikell, a normal mom, who started to think about Africa, and now, even as I write this, is on a plane to Uganda to begin an adventure from which she will return radically changed. I know these people. Simply said, the work they do is good.

I’m talking about me. I must return to Africa. At the rIsk of sounding presumptuous, I must continue the work that we have started in the lives of the children that are now a part of our hearts and lives. I cannot ignore their cry.

I’m talking about you. If you are uninformed, ask some questions. Read a book about the AIDS crisis. Give to organizations that you know are doing a good work and use funds responsibly. Yes, maybe even sponsor a child.

You see, he who shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will cry himself and not be heard. There are no qualifiers on that statement. It is simple truth.

Don’t ignore the cry. That’s why I must return.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

More New Experiences...

(Written somewhere over the Pacific on April 21, 2008)

Kite-Flying in China

I awakened Sunday morning, April 13th, in Shenyang, Northern China, and decided to go for a walk! I had an hour or two of free time, the sky was sunny, and my spirits were high!
Going for a walk along the broad streets of this northern Chinese province is an interesting experience. One must have a measure of confidence in order to deflect the stares of the curious Chinese who rarely see a Caucasian strolling down their streets. I didn’t see another Caucasian, besides the members of our team, the entire time we were in this city.

I decided to walk south and turn left at the first intersection. After about five minutes, I came to a large plaza, with a huge, ornate gate at its northern end. Parents and children were interspersed across the plaza, enjoying the sunny Sunday morning through the ancient and beautiful Chinese tradition of kite-flying.

I spied a dad and his daughter with their kite soaring high in the sky and realized it was a great photo op. After non-verbally getting permission to take their picture, the dad non-verbally offered to let me fly his kite!

I suck at kite-flying in China. (No, I don’t usually talk like that; but, in this case, it accurately describes my performance.) After taking the reins and watching the kite slowly descend towards earth, I quickly gave the twine back to the Chinese daddy. Of course, it immediately soared back to heaven and I was chagrined.

Oh well, the Chinese have been flying kites for thousands of years. They have more practice.

Biking in Beiling Park…

After my embarrassing and brief kite flying career, I deduced that beyond the gate was a huge park, and that one must purchase a ticket to enter the park. (Keen observation skills are necessary in the absence of language competency!) I got in a long line (there are no short lines in Asia) with a bunch of short Chinese people, watched what they did, and waited for my turn at a ticket window that was just about the height of my zyphoid.

I realized that if I bent over to peer into the zyphoid-height ticket window, my American-sized derriere would be in the face of the tiny little Chinese lady behind me; and, since I was the only Caucasian in sight, the giggles and pointing fingers clearly indicated that I was already a topic of Sunday morning conversation and I didn’t need to add any derriere humor to the situation. So, I simply held up one finger, stuck it in the little ticket window along with what I hoped would be enough Chinese Yuan to pay for the ticket, and wondered if a ticket would come out. It did! So far, so good!

I went to the gate, gave the attendant my newly-purchased ticket, and proudly entered the park! Shortly after passing through the gate, I discovered an orderly row of bicycles beside a very beautiful pond. Again, after making the best of my non-verbal communication skills, I was successful! I now had a rented Chinese bike and was going bike-riding in China just like most of the three billion Chinese people do every day!

I tooled around the Emperor’s Tomb, enjoying the astounded looks of the Chinese strolling the park who were not accustomed to seeing a Caucasian on two wheels on Sunday morning! Actually, most of the people seemed oddly pleased that I was enjoying their park, judging from their friendly smiles and waves.

This was one of my all-time favorite, but simple, travel experiences. I only wish my Jeannie had been on the seat behind me on my rented, Chinese, tandem bicycle!

Almost Stranded…

Novice travelers lose things. Seasoned travelers do not. I thought this was immutable truth. It is not. I am a seasoned traveler. I lost my passport. My travel pride has been shattered. Seasoned travelers DO loose things like passports. It is NOT good to loose your passport in China. Simple sentences reflect simple truth.

On April 14, 2008, my international travel pride was shattered into a million tiny, humiliating little pieces. After a satisfying breakfast of Chinese dumplings, noodles and spicy cabbage, we dressed for the afternoon’s work, packed up, and boarded the bus to the airport for a flight to the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao, and an afternoon and evening of work.

As we bussed through the crowded Northern China city of Shenyang, one of our Chinese staffers yelled from the front of the bus, “Who left the passport in the hotel?”

Of course, we all wondered who the nitwit was who left a traveler’s most important document in the entire world. And, of course, we all looked to make sure we had our passports because one always looks to make sure he ha his passport when coming and going in a foreign land!

Think adrenalin rush! I am stuck in China! My passport was not snuggly tucked away in the pocket of my bag reserved exclusively for my well-loved little blue book! For a brief moment I considered not admitting my foolishness, balancing my own ridiculous pride against the trials of replacing my passport while in China! It took one nanosecond to come to my senses!

In front of the entire bus, I admitted my mind-numbingly stupid act, and the bus turned around to go back to the hotel. They had my passport. I had a scarlet face. Never again.

"I am a Poor Prince..."

(This was written the evening on April 16, 2008)

When it seemed like coming on this trip was the right thing to do, it seemed to me that there was a goal beyond presenting the ministry of Santiam Christian School to parents and students in a communist country. That is a wonderful opportunity in and of itself; and, is an important chance to build bridges into the lives of people the Father loves so much.

It seemed to me that I needed to watch and wait for some kind of opportunity the Lord would bring my way. We’ve done presentations and had adventures in Beijing, Shenyang, Qingdao, Guangzhou, and now we are in Shenzhen, departing tomorrow for Korea at 6:00 a.m. I’ve been watching and waiting.

Last night, in Guangzhou, I met a young man named Huang Bo. He goes by the name Mike. When I met him, it seemed the Lord was prompting me to get to know him a little more. Today, here in Shenzhen, I had that chance, and I believe that meeting Mike was at least part of the reason that the Lord had me travel all the way across the Pacific and though China to the city of Shenzhen.

Shenzhen is an interesting place. This city of at least nine million people is less than thirty years old. It was created to be a “special economic zone” (SEZ) in 1979, due to the proximity and success of Hong Kong. (Shenzhen is just 45 minutes from Kowloon, Hong Kong.) The SEZ was created to be an experimental ground of
capitalism in "socialism with Chinese characteristics". Think about this for a minute…Here is a city of at least nine million people, living in a place that is less than 30 years old. That creates some interesting dynamics if you think through the implications…

On with the story…

Mike works for the agency that is sponsoring our stay here in Shenzhen. This student recruitment agency is unwittingly cooperating in guaranteeing that some Chinese students have the opportunity to come to the US, study in Christian schools, live with Christian families and hear the Gospel…something most have never heard.

Today, when we went to the Shenzhen office to meet with parents, Mike was there. I was hoping for some time to visit with him, as he impressed me as a gentle, kind person. During a lull in student visits, he stopped at my table. I realized that this was, perhaps, my divine appointment. We began to visit and the visit quickly went beyond small talk and into Mike’s personal concerns.

I often ask about the facets of economic life of the people I meet in other countries. Mike said that he doesn’t have a wife because he can’t afford to support two people and he is often sad because he can’t buy a lot of things. Remember, now, Mike is living in a city that is only thirty years old and was built primarily to facilitate commerce and consumerism. In the last ten years, this city has had over 30 billion dollars in outside business investment to capitalize on the booming Chinese population and it's growing affluence.

I quickly responded that Mike is, indeed, a rich man due to his kind disposition, and that a young woman who would become his wife would come his way soon! (There seven females for every male in Shenzhen, and the average age of the city is less than thirty years old!) He seemed genuinely encouraged. We visited for some time, and I began to feel a divine love and care for this young man that the Lord loves so much. He told me that he felt encouraged as we talked, and he noticed that no one else on the team, besides me, remembered his name after last night.

The conversation took quite a turn when I went out on a limb and told Mike that I believe in God, and that I believed that meeting Mike was a part of the reason why I came to China. He seemed quite astounded and said, “You believe in a God?”

I told Mike that I did believe in the God of Heaven and that I also believed that God loved him and knew about him; and, that He had an amazing plan for Mike’s life. Mike seemed quite incredulous at this, and responded quite seriously, “God knows about me?” I then related some of what the Scripture says about God’s knowledge and care for us.

I told Mike I believed the Bible was God’s words written down for us and that what was written was true. His response was, “You believe it is true? Unbelievable!” He had never met anyone who talked of God and trusted Him and His Word!

We continued to visit, and I knew that Mike was my divine appointment. I could feel a love and care for this young man. I asked him for his email address, as it was getting close to time for us to leave. I asked him to write it in English so I could read it. He wrote a word that I didn’t understand, so I asked him the meaning and why he chose it for his email name. He wrote the transliteration, “gaibangshaoye.”

I asked him what it meant, and he said that the Chinese characters for those sounds actually mean, “I am a poor prince.” That deeply impacted me. In a sense, Jesus was a poor prince. (Actually, a king, but a king is a prince before he is a king!) This 25 year old man, who doesn’t yet know the Father, has actually chosen a name that reflects the character of the Lord Jesus. Amazing.

I told Mike that he is actually a rich prince because of the depth of his character and kindness, and that his abundance is not dependant upon possessions; that the God of Heaven loves him so much. He then said, “If there is this God, I will trust him, too, as you do.” Among other things, I told Mike that if he looks for God with all of his heart, he will find him. He responded, “Who will tell me how to look for him?” I will help him find God.

At that point, it was time for us to leave. Mike looked into my eyes and said very seriously, with both of my hands held in his, “I will be your son.” I believe that he was actually referring to being a disciple, and that he was placing himself in the position as a student. Still clasping both of my hands in his, he asked if I promised to email him. I vowed that I would.

I believe that today’s short, eternal exchange, is one of the main reasons I came to China. I am continually amazed at how God guides and directs, as we keep our eyes looking straight ahead, taking only paths that are firm, one step at a time.

I am looking forward to further exchange with “I am a poor prince” and know that we will see one another again. Please take a few minutes to pray for Mike; that the enemy will not be able to snatch away the seeds that were planted today, and that he comes to know his true Father.

An Inconvenient Trip

(This was written on the plane while traveling home from China/Korea on April 21, 2008)
What a long and interesting jaunt through Asia! Experiencing other peoples and cultures is always an incredible experience and I am thankful to have enjoyed the opportunities that have come my way. Though this trip was particularly rigorous, it was a mind-broadening experience for which I am very thankful.

Over a period of 12 protracted days (4/9-4/20), I have completed five uncomfortable international flights, two domestic Chinese flights, multiple mind-blowing bus rides and one four hour bullet train trip. I have “slept” in five attention-grabbing hotels in five gigantic cities in two astonishing countries. I’ve met countless anxious parents hoping for a fresh opportunity for their children, realized I was the only Caucasian in a sea of hundreds of Asians , and eaten multiple, needlessly prolonged “business” lunches and dinners. I’ve been stared at, jostled, pushed, prodded and squished on crowded Asian streets and disgorged from packed subways along with many hundreds of Koreans. Would I do it again? Indubitably!

I would do it all over again because interspersed between all the work and travel, I have been privileged to climb the uneven, stone steps of the Great Wall. I have strolled though the history-filled palaces of Beijing’s Forbidden City. I’ve circumnavigated on bicycle the tomb of the second Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. I’ve haltingly visited under a willow tree with a lovely elderly Chinese woman whose face has seen history I cannot comprehend. I’ve wiggled my fingers in the South China Sea, slurped plum-sauce covered Peking Duck, chewed and swallowed curried octopus tentacles, and experienced a master-planned city of nine million people that has only been in existence for thirty years.

I struggled with little sleep in a humid room, while angry Chinese mosquitoes feasted on my fresh American blood. I got up too early, boarded packed planes, flew from Northern to Southern China, got off packed planes and went straight into the day’s work.
I enjoyed a too-short sixty minutes with my Korean son on the crowded, bustling streets of his home country and witnessed the continuing fruit of God’s work in his life. I’ve considered a flock of geese flying from South Korea to North Korea, across the no-man’s-land of the DMZ, and realized that the freedom they experience is unavailable to millions of hungry people who are just across the fence from me.

I watched a Chinese man’s eyes light up the very first moment he recognized that there may be a God beyond the veil that has been so cleverly placed over his eyes. I explained to a fourteen year-old girl from northern China that the warm feeling she experiences when she thinks about God is actually the drawing of the Holy Spirit that the God of Heaven sent to teach and comfort her.
Would I do it again? Without question. Am I dead-tired? No need to ask. Do I miss my family? Of course. Were my incredible Junior High teachers required to shoulder extra responsibility during the time I was working in Asia? No doubt. Was this trip convenient or easy? No.

I enjoyed the adventure; but, more importantly, because of this inconvenient trip, students from a Communist country who have been taught to not believe will attend an excellent Christian school, live with caring host families who will model the character of Jesus Christ, and develop relationships with teachers who will educate with compassion and genuinely care for them. The blinded eyes of these dear students will gently be opened to eternal Truth.

At least they will have the opportunity to choose. Because of that, it was all worth it.