Monday, March 25, 2013


For those of you who have been following my writing for awhile, you know well that each time I head to Mulenga, my prayer is that I can continue to build relationships with the care workers and the kids in the community. There are a few care workers and children over the years that if I were to be honest, have become as important to me as my own friends and family here in Canada. I've told you stories of my dear friend, Kennedy, who I met back in 2009. Over the years, I make a point of trying to spend some time with him, however long, to just remind him that he is loved and prayed for and missed by me. Last year, we were able to spend quite a lot of time with Kennedy because we were staying in nearby Kitwe, and that meant that we were able to visit Mulenga fairly regularly and see him. Life is getting more and more difficult for Kennedy. This time, I only saw him for just a few minutes. I was in a crowd of children at the care point, when suddenly his face appeared right in front of mine. His spindly arms were around my neck and I hugged him and held his hand just for a minute or two. I asked him how he was doing and he shrugged and said he was fine. He didn't look fine and I know, from reports from care workers and from Pastor Blessings, that life is anything but fine for this boy. We sat down beside one another for a few minutes and I pulled out the photos I had brought for him, taken on our last visit. I gave him photos of him and the boys together and then one of he and I together. He looked at the photo of us and told me I was his mother from Canada. This from a boy with no mother or father. I feel so connected to this boy and he to me...yet we're miles apart and his life's circumstance continue to decline. He looked at the photos and went to give them back to me and I told him that they were for him to keep. He thanked me and sat looking at them while other kids clambered around us for a peek. He told me to wait and then ran off with the photos, returning without them. He stood for just a minute to one side, waved and then ran off. I didn't see him again and I wonder if he knows how much a part of me he is. He's the face I see when I pray for the children in Mulenga, because he is one who has been cared for and loved by the care workers but he is constantly pulled away by the need to survive on his own. 

Each time I go back to Mulenga, I feel like I have to prepare myself not only for the beautiful welcome and love of our friends there, but also for the fact that for kids like Kennedy, life goes on...and it's not always beautiful. Harder still, returning to Mulenga, and missing the chance to see Annie or others, because for them, life hasn't gone on. I knew that Annie had passed away and so in my mind, I was prepared for her absence in the community. What I wasn't prepared for was the way it has reshaped her family's life. Her sisters are doing well and taking good care of one another but they are doing it with a burden of grief. When I sat with Prescovia, she was full of fun and laughing, even a little hardened, if I'm going to be honest. But at the moment I mentioned how sorry I was to hear that Annie had passed on, her heart was on her sleeve, tears were near the surface and her voice softened. We spoke just for a few minutes about it and I could tell that a year later, her grief is still fresh. A sister gone. A space in the home unfilled. An absence felt.

On my last day in Mulenga, I met up with Reuben and asked him if we could please go visit Eva's mother. I was sure Eva would be at her school and I wouldn't be able to see her, but I wanted to see her mother and pass on some photos and a few little gifts my co-worker Gloria sent along for her and her family. Eva has a very special place in my heart. I love this little one so much and it's been such an amazing experience to watch her grow and thrive over the past few years. As we approached her home, I was excited to see Eva out front, sweeping the step with a course brush. She stopped and stood and smiled when she saw me. Dorothy, her mother, saw me coming and greeted me by name. We went into their little house and for the first time, I was able to see where Eva is living and growing up. She sat across from me, smiling shyly. She accepted the small gifts and photos that I had brought and she was excited to show her brothers, Josh and Calibo. Josh is growing and in grade one. He's only 5 but he's very smart and Eva teaches him her school work so they are learning together. Calibo has just turned two and is bright and active. Eva is still very quiet, her mother told me, but she's a happy girl and helps much around the house. Natasha, the first born, is now living across the river with her grandparents, so that she can attend the government school there. Eva's mother is expecting another baby in the beginning of May.  We talk for quite a while with Reuben interpreting where necessary. I learn that her husband has found some consistency in working and that for the most part, relatively speaking, life is good. There is food for the children on a regular basis right now and the kids are able to attend school. Before we leave,  Dorothy pulls out a plastic bag protecting photos of her family. There are not many, most are ones that I've taken over the years, but we look through them and like mothers everywhere, compare how the children have grown. I show Eva a photo of her and Easton together and she laughs and points. She remembers the day we came to her school and pulled her out of class for a quick visit and to say goodbye on our last day in Zambia last year. 
Again, this is my last day in Mulenga for who knows how long. Often, on these trips, I scan the faces of children everywhere to catch a glimpse of my sweet friend, Eva, or her siblings. And, once again, as was the case on my last solo trip, I only see her on my last day in the community. I've come to think that God saves the best for last, sending me home with the memory of her fresh in my mind and in my heart. 
Upon arriving back in Saskatoon, I opened my email on a blizzarding Monday and there was a quick note from Dorothy. She had taken my email address and then passed a message along via a friend who had access to a computer at work. And once again, in the midst of a snowstorm, I'm back in Mulenga, heart and soul. Just like that.

My sweet friend, Eva, with her brothers Joshua and Calibo

Eva's mother ~ so thankful for her friendship

Friday, March 22, 2013

Pastor Larry

Earlier this week, I had message letting me know that an amazing man had left this world. It was just a few lines but it unravelled me because this man was someone I measured others unwittingly against for many years. His name was Larry Dyck.

Larry was the senior pastor at our very first church. Jason was hired by an extraordinary little church on the west side of Kelowna, BC., fresh out of bible college. A church with a lot of white haired parishioners and a few young families had the vision to reach out to the community around them by hiring a youth pastor, despite the fact that there was literally maybe 6 youth in the church. We pulled up to that church in our '69 Volkswagen van, put every one of those kids in it, and spent the next months just experiencing what can really be called the glory days of youth ministry. We had great volunteers, kids coming out of the woodwork from all over the community and a pastor who became one of Jason's biggest fans and supporters even long after we left that job. Larry was the kind of pastor who believed that dings in the church walls and noise in Jason's office meant that Jason was doing a great job. He loved when the kids in the youth group would sit in the front rows on one side of the church and he would dialogue with them throughout his messages, keeping them engaged. He knew their names and remembered their stories, met their families and was always up for some fun. One of my favourite memories of church was a particular Grey Cup weekend where we had gathered for food and to watch the game at someone's house. The game went long and we were supposed to have church at 6 but we all sat poised at the edge of our seats, watching Larry for any indication that he was going to head to the church in the last few minutes that would allow him to begin church on time. He didn't. He sat right till the final whistle and then we all jumped into our vehicles, there was about 20 of us, and we flew down the highway to the church, unlocking doors and turning on lights just as the rest of the church pulled in around us. It just felt like a celebration that we could all watch a football game till the end, cheer all the way to the church and then jump into worship mode. It is things like that, little things, that set Larry apart from other leaders who felt they had to be above real lives to serve others. I just loved him.

Larry and his wife, Marilyn, set the bar incredibly high for other pastors in our lives to measure up to. Really, no one ever could. They became our family. They not only worked alongside us, they really shared their lives with us and taught us to do the same. We had a standing Saturday night date at their house ~ pizza and hockey ~ and were just as welcome in and out of the house as their own kids. We shared meals, movies, hockey games and books. We watched them in their marriage, their parenting, their ministry and their personal lives and we learned. We saw their imperfections and their strengths and loved them all the more. They lived openly and honestly and that is something we were so privileged to be part of.

Larry loved to laugh and it was contagious. He had this funny expression in which his eyes would get big listening to a story, he'd lean way back and then say, "No" to whatever you were telling him...and then it would come...the laugh, accompanied by a clap of his hands. I can hear it still. He was a denim shirt kinda guy, ran lots, worked roots that ran deep, friendly through and through with that sense of hospitality that is inbred in prairie folks to just talk to anyone and share a story. He was straightforward and would ask those kind of questions that would lead you to realize that maybe the path you were on had deviated from the one you should be following, without shaming or judging, gently beckoning you back.

Our lives are so much richer for the time we had with Pastor Larry. I believe that heaven exists and that he's been welcomed home to the place that has been readied for him. I'm not sure we could ever have felt ready to let him go but I'm thankful that we were so loved by Larry and Marilyn, while he was here on earth.  Our prayers are with Marilyn, Jeff, Jessica and Janine and the kids as they say goodbye to Larry tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Appropriate Responses

When walking with care workers in their communities, you realize right away that although you're doing home visits, the very presence of the care workers in the pathways of their villages means that children have access to someone they trust. It's not uncommon on the way from one home to the next, to be stopped by numerous children with various requests and greetings. Care workers know the children of their communities by name and where they live, who they live with and what they're dealing with. These are the people that are making communities come alive with hope. 

On our first day in Mulenga, I walked with Dorothy and Reuben and Joyce. We were heading to the home of a patient when we noticed a young girl sitting on the side of a large, half built building. She had her chin in hand and was tucked into the corner of the wall, staring at the ground. Dorothy trailed off the path and crossed over the yard to where the girl sat. She introduced her to us as Mary*, age 11, and we sat near her, listening to Dorothy's questions and the young girl's answers. She told us that her mother was in the city trying to get work and had left her and her siblings home alone for a few days. When Dorothy asked if she had eaten, she shook her head and explained that there was no food in the house at all. As she spoke, her younger brother, 7, came and sat with us. Dorothy told them to come to the care point and that they would be given a meal and some food to take home. We rose to leave and thought the children could walk with us but they both started back for their house, to fetch their youngest sibling, just a small girl of 4. Three children, the eldest 11, home alone with no food. 
We continued on our way and told the children we would meet them at the care point in just a while. We went on and did a couple of home visits and then returned to the care point, just as the three were walking in. They had got turned around in the paths of their community and it took them a long time to walk to the care point. Empty bellied, hot and tired, carrying their smallest sister, these kids take care of one another the best way they know how - sticking together. 
When I look into the eyes of these children, I want to cry for them. I want to cry for their mother whose best hope is to leave them alone and try and get work to be able to feed them again. I want to cry for girls of 11 who are tired and ill and boys of 7 who take care of sisters, elder and younger.
But when I see them, sitting with their care worker, Dorothy, and she and they talk and hold hands and she feeds them? I want to cry with gratitude and joy and the absolutely privilege of watching love making a difference in their lives. When I come into this community that I love, I realize that it's because it is in this community that I have seen love. Real love. And the difference it's making.

There's No Simple Life

Two girls play checkers with Coke and Sprite bottle tops

It's not easy being a girl in Zambia...particularly in the communities that we work in. The simple life of playing with dolls and braiding hair is combined with nightly struggles to remain safe and out of sight of those in the communities that would prey upon the young and vulnerable.  Little girls should have fathers who watch over them and stand guard as they sleep. They should have mothers to teach them about healthy habits and hygiene. They should have beds to sleep on, bathrooms to bathe in, full bellies and friends over to giggle under the sheets with as they fall asleep. They should have a roof over their head to withstand the rains that have come every night since my arrival and they should have a door with a lock that can secure them for the night. A safe place. A home. A family.
Simply put, there is no simple life for children here in our communities. Many of them live alone or with an aunty or grandmother or some other adult who has taken them in. Many don't have food to eat or someone to pay their school fees or even someone to tuck them in at night and say, "You've nothing to fear, I won't let anyone hurt you."

Nights in these communities can be dark and long. It's not just lack of electricity or light, it's the darkness that comes when adults think of children as their playthings, those to be taken advantage of for their own sick pleasure and then tossed aside - frightened, damaged and hurt.  Nights can be long for children whose mother is doing her best but can't afford a roof without holes, that allow in the rain and the rats, causing a night to be spent standing, not sleeping, in any dry corner. Nights are long for children who have buried their parents, are grieving and lonely, and have no one to care for their basic needs.

Care workers are lights in communities where the darkness lasts long after the sun rises. They provide security for the children by showing the community that someone cares for these kids and will know if they've been hurt or taken advantage of. They bring a sense of hope and family to children who spend too many hours alone, wondering where their next meal will come from or how to get soap or toothpaste. They provide a place for children to come and be kids. A safe place in the community where children are fed a nutritious meal, where someone notices if they don't show up, a place to go to school, and a place for homework to be done and someone to help them when they need it. A place to play games and laugh and run and be included, not dissuaded or ignored, shooed away or run off.

This week, being back in Zambia, is a gift to me as always. I've been in homes of people that have cared for their neighbours until their death, where unrelated people take on the burden of another child, simply out of mercy and goodness. I sat with mothers who have buried their child since I was last here, children who have buried their parent or a sibling, and I have continually wondered how it is that my life has come to intersect with these in such an important way. I know that God has brought me back again and again for my own learn and grow and develop compassion. I know, too, that being here has brought encouragement to those who think that no one knows or cares. This week, in the midst of the rains that Zambia continues to pour out on us, I have seen that in many ways, I'm always here to learn. To bridge the gap that finds me sleeping under a mosquito net, in a bed, without a leak in the roof above me. I just can't seem to accept that, though we've found each other and see that our worlds can be bridged by love and acceptance and relationship, we can't find a way to really live simple, balanced lives.