Category Archives: Papua New Guinea

Baby, I’m a White girl…

I struggled with race when we first moved back to the States from Papua New Guinea. I naively didn’t think it was so much a Black/White thing (although it certainly was), as the fact that I kept expecting African-Americans to be culturally the same as my dark-skinned friends from New Guinea.  I was constantly imposing a set of expectations and social ‘rules’ on African-Americans which simply weren’t theirs to keep.  It caused frequent ruptures and misunderstandings. My particular form of latent racism came with a certain brand of colonialism (borne from life as a White missionary child in a Black country).

I was gifted my freshman year of college by finding myself living on a floor in the dormitory which was predominantly African-American. My cultural expectations were quickly exposed, and quickly addressed.  Those girls would not tolerate my racism.  And I’m better for it.

Virlinda (also known as ‘Vi’ (pronounced VEE)) was all over my case. Any time I said something which exposed my privilege, she’d not let me linger in oblivion, but would interrupt, getting up in my face and demand, “Say ‘Baby, I’m a White girl.'”  At first I’d just stand there, staring dumbly.  She would get more animated and more obnoxious. “Say ‘Baby, I’m a White girl.'”  The line got repeated ad nauseum until I would finally give in and repeat aloud “Baby, I’m a White girl.”  Then she’d grin real big and continue on with whatever we were doing.

It came so frequently I began to dream it: “Say ‘Baby, I’m a White girl.'”

It became my mantra for the year: “Baby, I’m a White girl.” Virlinda wouldn’t let me lose site of the privilege I brought to each and every discussion, each and every interaction, each and every transaction.  For a period of time I hated her.  Then I loved her.

What an education! Thank you, Vi.

Baby, I’m a White girl.

A group of us from the dorm at a college football game.  Virlinda is in the front row, on the left.

A group of us from the dorm at a college football game. Virlinda is in the front row, on the left.

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Paper strong…

My remarks here are written in response to this blog.

Several years ago after my Grandmother died, I was sorting through her things for the sale, and found, tucked in the piano bench along with her favorite hymnals, the aerogrammes I’d sent her from Papua New Guinea as a child. I sat on the floor next to the piano and read the ramblings and concerns and the joys of a little girl away at boarding school, trying to explain the world as I knew it in the jungle to someone on the farm in Ohio. Sprinkled throughout those letters are hints of homesickness coupled with fears of returning ‘home’: such tensions for a little girl to hold!

In a filing cabinet I found a bundle of the aerogrammes my Mother had sent her Mom. Many of them detail the same events or the same time period, but told instead from the perspective of a very young woman, trying her best to make good decisions for her children, and trying her best to serve the Lord in a very patriarchal, patronizing mission station. Her grief on so many levels was evident, even among the more heroic claims of faith.

The juxtaposition of the two sets of letters was very healing for me. And Grandma, bless her, managed to hold both close to her heart without betraying confidences. Those thin pages wielded a mighty balm!

The thinnest of paper bore the weight of the world.

The thinnest of paper bore the weight of the world.

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First world problems…

A new found friend has taken up the mantle of victim advocate in Gender Based Violence (GBV) in the capital city of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.  She is wielding the weapons at her disposal against patriarchal traditions which are both native to her land and imposed from certain Western ideals.  As such, she is actively on the web setting up groups for discussion, message boards, etc. and is posting images of women who have suffered unimaginable brutality.  She’s emailed and discussed curriculum options for weekend seminars, and requested resources. She recently emailed me privately some photos: they are graphic and haunting–including fresh wounds from axes and bush knives, burns from hot irons, broken bones and bruises from beatings, amputations, and even images of a woman being burned to death and a beheading.

I am honored to be trusted with such images–honored and deeply humbled.

And traumatized.

Since receiving the photos I’ve not been able to sleep.  Days have passed and the images dog me, sneaking up when I least expect it. It isn’t that the level of violence is new to me: I witnessed ravages as such as a child growing up among the poor and prostitutes in the capital. I grew up not knowing that wounds weren’t normal–that amputations weren’t just a matter of course.  Rape was a real possibility (even if I’d gotten the logistics confused as a child).  I understood scars as women’s history written large on their bodies.    Yet as an adult, with feminist-educated eyes and a wealth of theological study behind me, the images sting anew: the status of women hasn’t changed much in 30 years.

And my initial response is silence.  I cannot bear the weight of these images alone, yet cannot share them–I don’t wish this sort of haunting upon anyone, especially those who for whom Western media has cushioned such blows (we don’t show dead bodies on TV or in our newspapers, they are censored out of our common news sources).  We witness domestic violence through movies–comforted that it is merely makeup we are viewing, and not real wounds.

I go talk to my therapist.  And I find I don’t care to introduce such atrocities to her psyche either.  I pour my heart out in frustration, but hold the pictures close to my proverbial chest.

I tell my best friend of them, and of the impossibility of sharing their burden.  He listens, pained at my frustration.  He allows me to hold them at a distance.  And finally, he offers to see them.  “I’m willing.”  And tears begin to flow freely.  And I consider it.

But I can’t help thinking back to my friend in PNG and the life-risking work she is doing on behalf of the women there.  How can I tell her that because of her pictures, I’ve been traumatized? That her emails have sent me to therapy?  That while she lives and breathes this atmosphere of violence, I spend $150 to talk to a therapist? That I fret because I’ve lost 3 nights of sleep? That I feel utterly inadequate and ridiculous?

Yet I live and work in this world: surrounded by high rises, wealth, and opulence.

Damn my first world problems and first world solutions. Damn them.

 

 

tears

When the distance is too great…

decades and continents separate us
your grip has never loosened
inescapable
enduring

I smell the dampness of the rainforest
the salt of the beach
the orchid mist of the mountains
the fecundity of mud between my toes

the sounds of exotic birds
indistinguishable from laughter
brown eyes smiling
open palms welcoming
singing for joy to a rhythm both strange and inviting

matched my heart beat.

and I ache for a place that was never really home
and a people who were never really mine.

The flag of Papua New Guinea.

The flag of Papua New Guinea.

When it is hard to be ‘Christian’…

There are days when it is hard to claim the moniker ‘Christian’.  Last week I experienced this in a very acute fashion: a woman was accused of sorcery in Papua New Guinea, and a crowd beat her and burned her to death.  Such violence is deplorable under any circumstance, but the fact remains that the outrage levied against this woman was fueled in part by norms and traditions taught by Christian missionaries: that is, that indigenous religious expressions are suspect and a work of  ‘Satan’.  The animistic traditions indigenous to PNG certainly bore their own share of violence, but the outrage and form of vigilante justice evidenced in this crowd of 50 onlookers is reinforced  by rhetoric of ‘spiritual warfare’ and such, common to Evangelical-speak.  And I cringe that the teachings of Jesus could ever be carried so far as to commit such heinous acts.

And yet I am aware of a long history of such crimes in the name of the Christian tradition (see for instance, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, etc.).  It is just hard to understand in the 21st century. Or so we think.

While people in Papua New Guinea were deemed ‘savage’  as the world looked on in horror while 50 people stood and watched a woman burn to death, last Tuesday we ‘civilized people’ in the United States watched by the millions as murder-suspect Dorner burned to death.  So much for ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  It seems Dorner required no trial–thus no attempt at stopping the fire or rescuing him was made.  Instead, it was urgent that ‘the threat be removed’.  How expedient we can be when brown skin is involved.

There are days when it is hard to claim the moniker ‘American’.

I have to confess I’m just grieved over both situations.  And at a loss.

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Walking Papers and the Indefectibilty of Grace

The following is a sermon I preached at my local church this July.  Some of the content will seem familiar.

Ancient Witness(s):

Matthew 10: 5-14

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

The Normal Hand Opens & Closes

A devotee told Chan Master Moxian, “My wife is extremely stingy. She will not spend even a penny on charity. Could you please come to my house and talk to her about engaging in benevolent deeds?” Very compassionately, Chan Master Moxian agreed.

The next day, when he went to the devotee’s house, the wife came out to receive him. True to her miserly nature, she did not even offer Chan Master Moxian a cup of tea. Chan Master sat down and held out his fist, asking, “Madame, look at my hand. What would you think if my hand remained constantly in a fist?” The wife responded, “If it remained in a fist, then your hand is deformed! Something must be wrong with it.”

Chan Master repeated her words back to her, saying, “It is deformed!” In the meantime, he opened up his fist and held out a flat palm to her, asking, “Were it like this all the time, what do you think?” The wife responded, “That would be deformed too!”

…there should be a balance in your receiving and giving.

A story By Ven Master Hsing Yun: from Merit Times

 

The Sermon:

On Heroic devotion:

A recent mishap with a pair of kitchen shears brought to mind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  I’d been cutting up chicken breasts for a stir fry, and not paying much attention.  It was the difference in the density of the meat which gave me pause.  “Huh.  That must have been gristle I cut through” I thought as I glanced down toward my hand.  Huh.  It was more surprise than anything that registered. A deep V shape had opened up in the pad of my hand, just below the webbing between my fingers.  I paused with momentary interest, but then continued cutting up the chicken.  I only stopped when the wound began to bleed.  It was then that the line from Merchant flitted through my head: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

Bleed indeed!  It took a moment to start, but once the bleeding began the flood gates seemed to open.  I soaked a kitchen towel in blood trying to apply sufficient pressure to close the gap and achieve hemostasis; I even began contemplating the need of sutures. Gratefully the bleeding ceased (as it will always, eventually…).  I then found myself in a state of shock: how could I receive such an onerous wound and not even feel it?  The only thing which drew my attention to the wound was that the scissors weighed differently in my hand; that the tension somehow changed from when I was cutting chicken to when I was cutting my hand.  I’ve yet to feel pain at the site.  How remarkably odd!

That evening, as I lay in bed I thought more about the wound, and then more about the Merchant. There is an intense friendship in this play between Antonio and Bassanio. The description of their friendship at times borders on the erotic. It is that intense! Antonio, willing to sacrifice anything for the budding romance of his dear friend Bassanio, agrees to offer a pound of his own flesh as collateral in a deal with a moneylender (who happened to also be Antonio’s bitter rival). There is no hesitation in Antonio’s desire to help Bassanio.   Risky business, of course, but this never impressed me much: as a child having grown up on the mission field, I knew the lengths to which one might go out of love.

But it wasn’t this arduous love and passion which caught my attention in the play.  It was Antonio’s unexplained depression evidenced in this ridiculous statement— his amazing line: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad”—which stopped me in my tracks.  Scholars of English literature are all over the place in their interpretation of Antonio’s malaise: some offer back the complex plot line in a very straightforward fashion–that Antonio’s life was at stake because Bassanio failed to pay his debt, indeed his life was soon to be ended; others surmise there was more than meets the eye more than simple platonic love between the friends–that securing the loan for Bassanio’s betrothal to a Portia caused Antonio great pain—so much so that he experienced detachment to death itself.  The reader is left to speculate, as we always are with Shakespeare’s ambiguous, colorful characters.

But it is Antonio’s indifference, either to his fate or to his emotions, which would not let me rest.  It was too familiar: unrequited, impossible love mingled with an unreasonable and disproportionate devotion.  These seemed to have numbed him to his own emotions, to his own needs.  Indeed it was foreshadowed in the ominous words on Portia’s casket “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath”.  The words echo the language I was taught as a child regarding what it meant to be a disciple of Christ–that there was no limit to the sacrifice we might (be called to) make in the name of our devotion; to choose the Way of God is to hazard all things.  Such potential demands can be psychic-ally numbing to say the least!

Of course in Shakespeare’s play, Antonio is saved and everyone has a good laugh. The villain’s plans are thwarted, and it all works out in the end.

But what happens when the potential sacrifice is indeed accepted?  What if Antonio had indeed paid with a pound of flesh? Or in the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, what if Isaac is bound and splayed out on the altar, and Abraham’s fist clutching the dagger is on its way down, and no heavenly body intervenes?

Are there no limits to where my devotion might take me?  A recent reading of a good friend’s festschrift evoked these questions for me as well. In it, the editors of the collection of essays (former students) describe a radicality in my friend’s devotion which is dangerously seductive and inspiring: that nothing would get in his way of his discipleship.  As the editor’s wrote “Everything was up in the air.  Everything was to be abandoned to the way in which he felt himself called.  Marriage, school, career–everything.”

Such language stirs the valiant among us to noble ends! It motivates and radicalizes our best inclinations.  Our faith takes us to heroic heights, all the while leaving the vicissitudes of daily life for others to attend to.  In this manner, a sense of proportion is lost: this is how children end up raising themselves; how wives become mere ‘helpmeets’. These sacrifices become the fodder by which the mythology of the saints is built. I know of what I speak! (…says the girl relegated to boarding school so that her folks could do God’s will).

One week during fourth grade at the international primary school I attended in the capital city of Papua New Guinea, Lorraine, one of my classmates, went missing from class.  No one said a word to us students about it, but her desk was packed up and belongings were sent home. I went home and asked my mother about her.  Mom didn’t know, but we pulled out the weekly paper to see if any news would enlighten us.  There it was: Lorraine and her mother had been gang-raped and were immediately removed and sent back to their home country.  Her father was tying up loose ends and would be meeting them there soon.

I remember the look on my mother’s face when she read this aloud to me.  I didn’t know what ‘rape’ meant at the time, but I figured it must be just about the worse thing that could ever happen to you–worse than even death.

That night, I lay in bed and fantasized about what the ‘worst’ might be.  My ten year old mind could not wrap itself around a concept of sexual assault: at the time that was a distant and meaningless reality.  So what could be the worst thing ever that could happen to you? I remember coming to the conclusion that it must mean that someone cuts off your arms and legs (I’d seen folks from the leprosy colony nearby: I knew you could live with one of these missing, but I couldn’t imagine how you’d live with all four gone!).  From that night on, whenever I’d get scared (such as at fortnight when guys got their paychecks and had been out drinking and carousing), I would lay in bed in a ball, face down on my arms and legs, trying to protect them from being ‘raped’.

While I’d gotten the specifics wrong, it never occurred to me that such a thing couldn’t happen to one of my family members: we all knew someone who’d been touched by violent crime or some other type of catastrophe.  In my head, it was a matter of time: odds were, sooner or later something awful was going to happen–it was an issue of numbers.

And so we lived in expectation of the worst: danger lurked everywhere, but it didn’t keep us isolated nor was it paralyzing: the work of the church was far more important than any ‘thing’ that could happen to us.  And if something bad did happen, it would be “all to the glory of God” (thus enforcing the cycle of the work of the church).  It was fascinating to imagine: How much money could be raised if something truly bad happened!  I could be the armless, legless little girl who brought salvation to New Guinea. Money from the U.S. would pour in!  As would my guilt, subsequently, for fear that if I imagined it–it might actually come true: and I didn’t want to be an armless, legless little girl! I didn’t have the courage to be ‘raped’.

The scripture we read today in Matthew was the preamble to a text that was frequently levied against me as a child. If you read the admonitions at the end of this chapter in Matthew, what I didn’t have read this morning, you’ll hear that (Matt 10:37-39) “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than [their faith] is not worthy of [their faith]; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than [their faith] me is not worthy of [their faith].  Whoever does not take up their cross and follow my path is not worthy. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for the sake of their faith will find it.”  This was the text oft quoted by the denominational leadership to justify boarding school to us missionary kids. Everything was framed within the context of heroic faith, where sacrifice was uplifted as their highest calling, souls were at stake, and we were frequently told that to create problems (that is, to not behave and do what we were told, or to complain too much) would force our parents away from the work that God had called them to—the consequences were dire as souls might be potentially ‘lost’.  If our parents were tending to us, they weren’t doing God’s will.

 

Against heroics:

The question I asked then is the question I still struggle with today: Can we not with some semblance of certainty claim that anything worthy of our devotion would not require such fantastic offerings from us?

The problem was: I didn’t know how to be a moderate or ‘modest’ Christian.  I had no models.  Tales of moderation are not stories of the saints.  I didn’t know if it was possible to lead a faithful life of moderation? Or is radicality essential?

The ends of this radical devotion, martyrdom, bears with it the same ultimate escape of consequences to which the family and loved ones of suicide victims fall prey. Choose the way of radicality and you relinquish responsibility (that is, the ability to respond at all) to those left holding your urn.

I found that much like the North and South poles, these extremes in ideas (even in faith) were fun to visit–a feat to visit even–but no one lives there for good reasons as they aren’t habitable.  Humans are a temperate bunch, preferring more moderate and livable climates–we need places that are habitable.  And we need a habitable theology.

It is here that this Christian theologian begins finding Siddhartha Gautama compelling.  While Jesus stands singularly as ‘the Way’—his is a path which isn’t repeatable… a path that led to a cross.  Siddhartha Gautama explored several paths before finally arriving at The Middle Way–—a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

And in many ways, The Middle Way seems far more difficult; far more challenging; and requires far more devotion to the path.  Living the middle way demands perpetual thoughtfulness and readjustment: it bears not the luxury of emotional decision-making, but demands presence without escape. It demands attention: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

And it is here that I want to return us to the text that was read in the ancient witness this morning.  Somehow how this is a message that was never fully conveyed to me as a child by my denominational leaders.  Allow me to quickly re-read the passage:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, find a worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

When presented with their spiritual path (with a ‘mission’-so to speak) the disciples were instructed to set their expectations high:

First of all: There is good to do.  And that they will be successful doing it: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

And moreover, that they should expect to have their needs met: “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts — no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep.”  Being a disciple didn’t have to come at their own personal expense.  They could be both giver and recipient: and as such, they were not the final arbiters of grace.   Their hands both open and close…

And finally, that they deserve respect: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave.  Shake the dust off your feet.”  We do not have to be heroes.  We have our walking papers.  Our task, following our Spiritual Path, isn’t about making ourselves miserable or enduring abuse.  We have the freedom to leave, and to seek ministry elsewhere.  And as the text reminds us: we can do so in peace.

What a difference it would have made as a kid, if I’d have heard this good news:  That my needs mattered. That I don’t have to put up with abuse.  That there isn’t anything admirable in unnecessary long-suffering.  That there are appropriate times to walk away from situations. What is so often overlooked in the Christian tradition: that is, the tradition in which a ‘savior’ dies, is that Jesus had no expectation that his followers follow suit: Jesus provided for us in his teachings our walking papers!

Indefectible grace:

Saying ‘no’ to the heroic is neither an abandonment of faith nor a deviation from our spiritual path.  Indeed, it might call us to an even higher level of trust if we abandon our own self importance in any given situation and allow others to step up. It takes considerable faith in to be willing to open our hands in release.

When I first began attending Lake Street Church, my fellow theologians asked “What is a systematic theologian doing at a church which is pointedly nondogmatic and nondoctrinal?”  Well-intentioned folks inquired, concerned that I was having a crisis of faith:  How in the world can you be happy in a church where Jesus isn’t uplifted as savior?  Where doctrine—what you’ve dedicated decades of your life to studying—doesn’t inform worship? 

And while I could have set up shop in defense of the congregation, my responses have always been quite simple: I see evidence of the Divine here.  That’s what drew me, and that’s why I stay. All that the Christian traditions have passed along I’d mastered, but had I tried to manipulate answers or forced us into tidy categories, I’d have closed a tight  and suffocating grip on the very thing which made this congregation so special: the Spirit.

But aren’t you afraid of where this might lead you? What if you end up not believing in anything at all?

There is an old Reformed doctrine called the doctrine of Indefectibilty. Whereas in the Catholic tradition, indefectiblity functioned along the lines of ensuring the perfection of the church—that is, an insistence that the church can be trusted (which has been often used as a power play), the Reformed spin on the doctrine shifted the emphasis from the church to the Spirit.

In this way, in this shift in emphasis from the church to the Spirit, the doctrine is less about the promise of the church and more about the promise of the Divine: that is, that the Spirit is indefectible: she won’t defect from us.  She won’t leave us to our own devices.  She promises abiding presence, in spite of our selves.  She can be trusted!

So it is a robust pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit) which has kept me here.  I can open my theological/doctrinal stronghold (open palm) and trust that where I see the presence of the Divine, I can relax my defenses, and I can stop pretending that ‘it is up to me’.  I can trust the winds of the Spirit to blow where she will… and I can breathe…

It yes to trust and a yes to the unknown, and a yes to the Spirit….

And more often than not, it is a YES to those who will eventually pick up the slack (and they will…),  to those who do things slightly differently than you would, to those who are testing the waters of their own leadership skills, to those who are learning…   Saying no to the heroic is a YES to the next generation.

 

Conclusion

What things heroic tasks have you taken on unnecessarily?  Are you functioning with an inflated sense of self importance? Perhaps the questions we need to be asking ourselves is not what it is I’m sacrificing, but who?  Can we trust one another to fill the gaps? Can we trust the presence of the Spirit….

BLESSED BE.

Call to Commitment:

“I wish for the seedling to become a tree. For a doctrine to become a tree, it has to be believed for a good while; for it to be believed, it has to be considered irrefutable. The tree needs storms, doubts, worms, and nastiness to reveal the strength of the seedling; let it break if it is not strong enough.  But a seedling can only be destroyed—not refuted.”

When he had said that, his disciple cried impetuously, “But I believe in your cause, and consider it so strong that I will say everything, everything I still have in my mind against it.”

The Innovator laughed in his heart, and wagged a finger at him.  “That kind of discipleship,” he said then, “is the best; but it is also the most dangerous, and not every kind of doctrine can endure it.”

–Fredrich Nietzsche,  Aphorism #106, The Gay Science

BENEDICTION:

Go in peace, knowing the good you have to do in the world, and also knowing that it all doesn’t rest in your hands!

The perfect storm

That there was a pedestrian accident on the Metra affecting Northbound trains, an afternoon Cubs game at home, and an extra-alarm fire at Fullerton shutting down the Red, Brown, and Purple line El trains was sufficient ingredients to cook up the perfect commuter storm.  I was stuck on the Red line of the El underground for about an hour Monday, awaiting word on where we could move to, and where we could escape our interment.  They finally allowed us to proceed to the North/Clybourn stop, and disembark.  The underground platform was crowded with confused and inconvenienced sojourners.  Body to body we were moved en masse towards the narrow escalator and stairs–and I thought to myself how easy it would be to get trampled or knocked off the platform onto the ominous, electrified third rail below.  Shudder.

We emerged from our dark womb and stood squinting in the bright sunlight.  There were shuttles off to one side, promising to take folks around the disaster to the next strain stop to the North, but there were also thousands standing in line, waiting for said shuttles.  I turned and walked the opposite direction, getting caught up in the sweep of the crowd.  It took me several blocks to get clear of people enough to figure out my bearings.  I could see the skyline and determined the best thing for me to do was head towards the lake.  Perhaps, even, if I headed slightly South I’d have a better chance of catching a cab or bus.  And so I walked. And walked.  And walked.  I wished I’d worn better shoes to the office.  My computer bag was beginning to weigh heavily and my feet became inconsolable on the hot concrete.

I paused to take a break and wipe the sweat from my eyes, and looked around. I was standing on the edge of one of those large city blocks designated for construction–fenced off, but for now, just a large overgrown field.  In the bright sun, the tall grass shimmered in the heat.  And I was transported to another world.

I’m 11 and sitting on a grassy airfield with my 13-year-old brother in Irian Jaya.  We’d been dropped there with the plane’s cargo the day before, and were patiently waiting for the pilot’s return.  We’d been on our way to ‘the village’ from boarding school, but cloud cover had made the hour and a half flight into a much longer series of dangerous holding patterns.  Running low on fuel, the pilot set us down on an open airfield and promised to be back once refueled and the cloud cover had receded.

24 hours have passed.  We don’t speak the language.  We don’t entirely know where we are.  We sit.    I wandered off for a bit, only to have my brother (big brother) yell at me, concerned I’d get hurt, uncertain of the wildlife in the area, and just generally being controlling.  “What if the pilot comes and you aren’t close by?  We might have to wait for you and the clouds might come back!” We worry about being on the wrong side of the border–given we don’t have our papers, and border fighting is common.

I begrudgingly come back to the pile of cargo we’ve been left with.  We are dirty, hungry, and mildly scared.  Our thoughts turn naturally towards abandonment, and whether or not any one has even missed us yet.  We fight–verbally and physically.  Finally, we are silent and sullen.

And the sound of the plane comes over the horizon…

Back in present day Chicago, I’m struck as to how very vulnerable I feel.  Vulnerable and alone.  Would anyone notice I was missing?

MK mischief…

My family furloughed from the mission field in 1985.  “Furlough” consisted of returning to your ‘homeland’ for one  out of every five years, and raising funds for the next four years’ ministry expenses.  During this furlough my family was invited to be the ‘missionaries in residence’ at the denominational college in the midwest.  We were provided a home to live in, fully furnished.  And in return, my folks made appearances in chapel services, taught some occasional classes, and just generally were available for students to talk to.  On top of these obligations to the local college, my folks traveled and spoke around the country, fundraising.  Mom indicates she and dad were gone 47 of the 52 weeks that year.  Meanwhile, my brother and I enrolled in classes in the local high school (he was a junior, I a freshman) and went about our business.  We were quite independent by this point–largely because we’d already been at boarding school for several years.

My folks met all sorts of people as they traveled and spoke, and often they would drop by the house to meet my brother and me if they happened to be visiting campus.  Neither of us kids found these little encounters much fun, as we didn’t know the visitors (we’d not previously met them) and often they were intrusive–assuming unwarranted familiarity.  They would tour the house, ask us kids to speak ‘that language’ or to sing or ‘tell missionary stories’.  We were much like a petting zoo–interactive yet none-the-less on display.

Mom phoned us and let us know one day that a couple they’d recently met would be coming up to the campus that weekend.  All we knew about this couple were their names.  Mom said she and dad had offered to let them stay at the house, instead of having to pay for hotel during their visit to campus.  She told us she’d describe us kids to this couple, and they were nice and would enjoy meeting us.

My brother and I put our heads together, irritated that once again we were stuck entertaining the masses.  Then it hit us: it wasn’t just that we didn’t know this couple–THIS COUPLE DID NOT KNOW US. We schemed with two of our highschool friends (a guy and a girl) to come spend the weekend at our house pretending to be us.  They could tell “New Guinea missionary stories” and no-one would know the difference.  They assumed our identities, and my  brother and I headed out on the train for a weekend in Chicago–sleeping in the bus terminal one night, and O’Hare airport the second.  We never said a word to anyone about the switch.

Then one day, months later, dad announced that we would not be returning to the mission field: instead, he was going to be taking a pastorate in the States.  To our surprise (and subsequent horror) the church he was now going to pastor was this couple’s home church.  My brother and I were now their pastor’s kids.  We had a lot of explaining to do.

Indeed, “your sins will find you out”.

Missing wantoks…

I’ve been in a funk this past week and I know it is related to news from New Guinea.  There was a landslide which took out two villages near Mendi (about 40 missing–buried) and then the ferry capsized off the coast of Lae–there were 250 students on board, and 104 are still missing (days later).  Several of those on the boat were from the Melanesian  Nazarene Bible college.  It is heart breaking…  and especially frustrating how little press it received.  (Given how much press the cruise liner off the shore of Italy received… where only 24 are still missing.  I guess it once again pays to be European).

There is a system in PNG called “wantoks”–which literally means “one talk”–that is, you speak the same native language. What is implied therein, is that you are from the same village, and are related, and your concerns belong to all your wantoks.  There is an obligation to tend to one another’s needs.  Sometimes this is good–no one is left out and no one goes without help.  But at times it is also a pain: relatives can just show up and demand things.  It is heavily intertwined with the lack of a notion of ‘personal property’ and the fact that language groups are so very small, isolated, and tight.  Anyway… I’m missing wantoks these days…

And the grief I’ve experienced over the news from PNG kinda exacerbates that feeling: to whom can I turn when I feel like this?  There isn’t anyone around who speaks my language… who has shared these experiences… who shares my grief.  It makes it very difficult to even talk about New Guinea at times.  I remember once when dad and I were riding his motorcycle, we came upon a bus accident.  I was about 10 years old.  Dad worked to triage folk, and we noticed one man who was bleeding out.  Dad said there was nothing to be done, so we tried to make him comfortable, and then went to help the other injured.  We heard a gurgling noise and saw someone pouring water down the man’s throat–literally drowning him.  The rationale: he’d lost a lot of fluid so this good Samaritan was filling him back up.  When we told this story in the US, it was met with disbelief that the ‘natives’ were so ignorant.  Sigh.

And I recall a time when a missionary family was driving the highlands highway (the only highway)–which was treacherous in and of itself with 20 some rivers to ford–to visit us on the north shore for vacation.  They never arrived at the appointed time, and we traveled to find them, only to discover a large landslide had covered part of the highway for several kilometers.  We spent 4 days digging people out, removing bodies and vehicles and debris, only to find out that the landslide had occurred before the missionaries got to that part of the road.  Because it was impassable, they merely turned around and went home, never thinking to notify us where they were, or that they were safe.  And their spin on the situation was that God had somehow intervened and saved them from being buried.

With whom can I share such tales?  Who can hear them without sensationalizing them, or using them for their own agenda?  In my grief, I am missing my wantoks.  And my wantoks are missing…

Imagining the worst…

When you grow up in the so-called ‘third world’ you never ask Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s famous question of “why bad things happen to good people.” Catastrophe and disaster are known entities, and when posed with this sort of question, the only reasonable response is “and why wouldn’t they?”  Kushner’s is a question borne out of privilege and luxury–where safety is an assumption: societal structures are in place to stave off most predictable disasters and most crimes are located on some ‘other’ side of the tracks.

When you grow up among the poor, you realize that safety nets are illusionary and death is a possibility.

The first few years in Papua New Guinea, we lived in the capital city of Port Moresby.  It was the most modern (and therefore western) city in the country, and I remember when the first stop lights were installed, and the first escalator was built-in an office building.  It was both amazing and amusing to watch a grown man barefoot and in traditional dress (tanget leaves and a bark belt) step onto the escalator and then jump back in surprise when it began to move.  It took him hours to brave his first ride.

Port Moresby was a clash of cultures and climates.  Situated in a coastal basin, it was surrounded by mountain ranges. The heart of the city was almost desert-like, whereas the mountains were lush rainforest. There were no external highways that led over these mountain ranges, so the city remained virtually isolated except by air and sea. There were many highlanders who had heard of jobs and educational opportunities in the capital, and had pulled together enough cash to buy a one-way plane ticket to the city. They left their villages with the promise of earnings and all too frequently found themselves jobless, homeless, and stranded without wantoks (one-talks: people who speak the same language and are therefore from the same village) to help them get started. As such, a growing mass of squatters accumulated in the capital.  And with squatters, crime. Juxtaposed with the extreme poverty of these transients, were the luxury homes of plantation owners and diplomats which dotted the hilltops. As such, white-skinned people were targeted: the assumption of wealth based on skin tone was clear.  We all had security fences, guard dogs, house boys, etc. to maintain our own tenuous facade of safety. But even with those measures intact, crime was something we lived with: I remember buying our own radio back on the black market: our name painted clearly on the top of it for all to see.

One week during fourth grade at the international primary school I attended, Lorraine, one of my classmates, went missing from class.  No one said a word to us students about it, but her desk was packed up and belongings were sent home. I went home and asked my mother about her.  Mom didn’t know, but we pulled out the weekly paper to see if any news would enlighten us.  There it was: Lorraine and her mother had been gang-raped and were immediately removed and sent back to their home country.  Her father was tying up loose ends and would be meeting them there soon.  I remember the look on my mother’s face when she read this aloud to me.  I didn’t know what ‘rape’ meant at the time, but I figured it must be just about the worse thing that could ever happen to you–worse than even death.

That night, I laid in bed and fantasized about what the ‘worst’ might be.  My ten year old mind could not wrap itself around a concept of sexual assault: at the time that was a distant and meaningless reality.  So what could be the worst thing ever that could happen to you? I remember comming to the conclusion that it must mean that someone cuts off your arms and legs (I’d seen folks from the leprosy colony nearby: I knew you could live with one of these missing, but I couldn’t imagine how you’d live with all four gone!).  From that night on, whenever I’d get scared (such as at fortnight when guys got their paychecks and had been out drinking and carousing), I would lay in bed in a ball, facedown on my arms and legs, trying to protect them from being ‘raped’.

While I’d gotten the specifics wrong, it never occurred to me that such a thing couldn’t happen to one of my family members: we all knew someone who’d been touched by violent crime or some other type of catastrophe.  In my head, it was a matter of time: odds were, something awful was going to happen sooner or later–it was an issue of numbers.

And so we lived in expectation of the worst: danger lurked everywhere, but it didn’t keep us isloated nor was it paralyzing: the work of the church was far more important than any ‘thing’ that could happen to us.  And if something bad did happen, it would be “all to the glory of God” (thus enforcing the cycle of the work of the church).  How much money could be raised if something truly bad happened!  It was fascinating to imagine: I could be the armless, legless little girl who brought salvation to New Guinea. Money from the U.S. would pour in!  As would my guilt, subsequently, for fear that if I imagined it–it might actually come true: and I didn’t want to be an armless, legless little girl! I didn’t have the courage to be ‘raped’.

It was this sort of magical thinking that led me in college to, upon spying an utterly disgusting and unsuitable male, declare him my ‘future husband’ to anyone within earshot.  To do so would ‘trick’ God into thinking I wanted it to happen–and I knew that nothing I wanted–my happiness–was the ultimate preventative: God would never give me the desires of my heart (because I failed to focus and ‘delight’ on Him).  Better to pretend to want what repulses me on the off chance that it might produce an opposing effect; God would instead  find someone truly wonderful for me to marry.  God ‘worked’ that way (His mysterious ways).