Friday, July 31, 2009

A Party for Jennifer

Jennifer has not had a birthday party since she turned four. When we found out that she was about to turn thirteen, we knew something needed to be done.

Ruthie spent whatever free time she had on Wednesday and Thursday preparing for the party, and we welcomed Jennifer into her teens in a grand fashion.

Here are Jennifer and Vanessa waiting for the festivities to begin:

Ruthie's dad showed up, and manned the grill, which was a huge help.
Everyone had a grand old time.

And here's one of Melvin doing the classic bunny ears gag. Kids still think it's hilarious after all these years.

After it was over, Jennifer thanked Ruthie repeatedly.
Jennifer's mom, a single mother of three, was also very grateful. We've become great friends with her as well through helping her kids.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Mask for Melvin

My brother Eric, who lives on our couch until he starts college, generously went out and bought Melvin a luchador mask.

Melvin's first question was, "why?"

Eric, Ruthie and I have been asked this question countless times since moving into the International village. Even our presence here is pretty wierd. Then when we take opportunities to help with our time and resources, no one really knows what to make of it.

After a recent act of kindness, Eric explained to the recipient, "God has blessed me."

That's the truth of it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Workful Wednesday

I spent the day painting in Lawrenceville today. While we were working, my father-in-law and I had some great time to talk about influence.

We both remembered certain adults who stepped across the age gap to engage us, and how powerful that was in our formation. In a way, I'm trying to imitate the impact that they had.

The negative forces in these young lives are tremendous. Our hope is to introduce them to a love that overwhelms all of the destructive voices that they face by reflecting that love in any way we can.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Safety Concerns

One of the kids we work with gave me a piece of bad news.

While I always take what the kids say skeptically, this was pretty believable, considering our neighborhood.

He told me that some gangsters were on our porch a few days ago in the middle of the night. According to him, they were trying to look inside. Also according to him, there are a few different gangs, and these guys belonged to one that does robberies.

In my head, I ran through a few scenarios and thought about possibilities. I feel as if we've taken all the precautions we can take to protect ourselves, but there is still risk due to the fact that we live here and that our being white makes us targets.

Many missionaries have a mindset that says, "Well, if God wants me here, then he'll protect me." I've known missionaries for whom that philosophy didn't work out. We really can't predict or understand what God will or won't allow.

To me, it's a matter of weighing the risks and measuring them against the importance of the work. Right now, Ruthie and I understand that there is a possibility of our possessions being stolen. We live pretty simply, and most of our things can be easily replaced.

We also understand that there is a slim possibility that we will be victims of violence, although violent crime in this neighborhood is domestic 99% of the time.

Part of working in needy communities is accepting that risk. We've decided that living here, being part of this neighborhood, is vital to our ministry. If that means there's a chance of being robbed, well, I guess that's what it means.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Jam Session

Aziz had a rough week, and I thought it would be a good idea to invite him over to our place to hang out with the North Fam. I ran down to Clarkston and picked him up after finishing work.

When Aziz and I arrived at my place, Vanessa and Jennifer were out on the porch getting some quality time with Rocket, our pet dinosaur:

We were about to start watching a documentary when Eric stopped us to show off the new effects pedals he got for his guitar. We ended up pretending to rock out for a while, resulting in the following photos:

After we were all fake-rocked out, we started a documentary called "Rivers and Tides," about Andy Goldsworthy, one of my favorite artists.

This evening, after all the activity was over, Ruthie and I decided to go for a run. Ruthie ran about 3 miles, and I ended up running around Stone Mountain in 41 minutes. According to their website, it's a 5-mile loop. That means I'm getting closer to the 8 minute mile pace I'm shooting for.

When I started running a few months back, I promised myself that I wouldn't get into timing myself or pushing for longer distances. I wanted to keep it steady and enjoyable. But I couldn't resist the challenge of doing faster, longer runs. So now I'm timing myself and trying to go farther faster. Oh well.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Newsletter Time

Ruthie and I wrote and sent out the latest Refugee Arts Newsletter today. We will also be sending out a few hard copies in the next couple of days.

If you did not receive it and would like to see a copy, drop us a note at either of the e-mail addresses on the right of the screen. If you want a hard copy, just make sure to include your mailing address.

A special thanks to everyone who donated to our ministry after getting the last newsletter. We put it to good use.

Sharp Instruments

I went to high school in the Philippines, and I joined the rugby team as soon as the sport was available. I still remember the feeling after the first pickup game we ever played. It was a revelation.

I grew up playing soccer, where you use your feet to manipulate the ball, but it felt nothing like rugby in terms of purity. The sport demanded that every muscle work together, that every sense moved into high gear, that speed meet agility meet power. And there were no gloves, bats, pads, bases, helmets, etc to slow you down or make your job easier.

In a far less adrenaline-fueled way, I feel like relational ministry offers a similar fulfillment. It strips away the mechanisms, the shortcuts, and the complex tracking methods, and puts a pure demand on the person engaging in the my inistry. It gets directly to the heart, and places its hope in what lies there.

That's why, when I looked at other missionaries doing this kind of work, I thought it looked like a pretty easy gig. Just spend time with people, right? I could do that.

Since arriving down here to do the work myself, I've realized the corruption of my own heart. There are areas where I am not willing to open myself to people, things I am not willing to give away, pains I am not willing to share.

For the most part, I love what we do. We help people and build loving relationships in the name of the kingdom of Christ. And for the most part, we see deep changes in the people we work with.

However, I have wrestled with small failures recently. A relationship with another missionary went cold, and he reached out to me before I opened up to him. A refugee I am close with expressed pain, and I did not go to him.

This is a 24-hour, inside-out gig. It's the most rewarding and demanding form of ministry, and I love it. When I finish with the immigrants and refugees, I come home and seek to open myself to my partners and supporters on this blog.

Thank God that when I hit the end of my resources, when I find those areas that are dark, and when I feel as if I have nothing to offer to the needy, his glory moves. Even now, I know that these failures are being used to turn my eyes to the Eternal for hope.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Mixed Bag

Today was nuts. This morning my brother Eric, my sister Lisa, and I went to the Australian consulate to apply for passports. We've had dual citizenship for a while, but the passports will be an added blessing.

After returning home from that errand, Ruthie and I had to get new plates for our car, so we took it in to the tax place and took care of that.

Meanwhile, a short-term missions team from Tennessee was working with the kids at our complex. Some of the boys formed a club in a recliner under the playground. Unfortunately, a fight broke out and two of them had to be sent home:

Ruthie and I had a good time with Lesly today (yes, that's the way her name is officially spelled). We've grown very close with their family. Jennifer is her older sister and Melvin is her brother.

This next picture is just a bunch of megapixels of awesome:

And this evening, I enjoyed some intense conversation with new friends. Thank God he's brought some like-minded people into my life.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Creature of Leisure

Work is banned from our household on Monday, and the time is given to refilling what has been drained by the previous week.

I needed the rest badly. On Sunday afternoon, I took a five-hour nap, got up for a few hours, then went back to sleep until this morning.

As a result, I awoke early. I love waking up before Ruthie, making a pot of coffee, and watching a slow-paced, black-and-white movie. Today's early morning movie was Akira Kurosawa's High and Low. It was a japanese crime movie about the relationship between a wealthy man and a kidnapper.

When Ruthie woke up, we headed down to little five points, Atlanta's gathering place for counter-culture types, their admirers, and tourists who like to dip into rebellion for a few hours here and there. Ruthie has some Refugee Beads stuff on sale in one of the stores, so she wanted to check on that, and I wanted to pick up a CD by Elvis Perkins in Dearland.

The store selling Ruthie's stuff was closed, but I found the CD at Criminal Records. I've listened to it twice, and it's growing on me. Here's the latest video from the album: Chains, Chains, Chains.

Anyway, a bunch of other stuff happened, including a 5-mile run around Stone Mountain and reading a few short stories. It was all very relaxing, and I feel a little better about facing the rest of the week. Hopefully I can keep the blog posts coming a little more regularly this week.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Kingdom

Let's start a few days ago. A good thing happened. Tim Cummins showed up at our place with a washer and dryer! In Chicago, where we lived before moving into the International Village, having laundry machines in your apartment was a pretty big luxury. We're feeling pretty pumped, as is Uncle Tim in this picture.

This morning, Ruthie had a "Village Gathering" with a missions team from Texas. Jennifer and Vanessa joined her, and they managed the cash box while tracking sales. They have become regulars at Refugee Beads, their help has been life-saving, and Ruthie's relationship with them keeps getting better and better.

Nivin and Purna were able to come to the village gathering to share their stories. Nivin is from Egypt, and Purna is from Bhutan. Since joining Refugee Beads, they have become close friends. I love this picture because both of them are totally in character.

These girls from Texas were able to bless Nivin and Purna by buying some stuff, and now they are blessing this blog with awesome smiles.

Our friend Connie, who we mentioned a few entries back, told us we didn't have enough pictures of us, since we are always behind the camera. She took this hilarious, somewhat strange picture of Ruthie and Julie having a laugh.

And finally, I'd like to link to one of my other blog projects. I wrote some lyrics about seeing traces of the kingdom in my work with immigrants and refugees. If you get a chance, hop over to Ghost Town Revival to hear my friend Jonathan Kotulski playing the song beautifully.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Running the Trinity

My brother Eric and I have been running regularly since late Spring, and we do what brothers do- spur one another on through competition and dares. One of our little challenges is a 5 mile run which climaxes in a knot of steep hill climbs that we call "Trinity." It's pretty tough for both of us.

I dubbed the run Trinity because it boasts three distinct steep climbs but only one steep hill. While I came up with the name as a joke (other potential names were "The Three Ugly Stepsisters," and "Hell"), I did some thinking as I approached the first climb today which continued through the rest of the jog.

The trinity is the weak point of the Christian faith, logically speaking. Pretty much anyone who wants to argue against Christianity goes for absurdity of the Trinity. It's an easy place to start, and it is one of the central concepts of our theology.

To me, the Trinity is a reminder of several important truths, all of which affect the way i minister and relate to the international community. Here, in bullet point form, are the few I meditated on as I ran:
  • The fact that the Trinity is beyond the reach of our reason, and central to our faith, is beautiful. It's a reminder of how the heart and nature of God is so far beyond the reach of our minds. This got me thinking about working with the kids, and how we really can't explain everything they need to know about God. They can only grow in understanding by relating to Him.
  • For the fact that our faith is built upon a mysterious, divine relationship, we Christians sure put a great deal of effort into quantifying everything. I want to steer clear of reporting numbers as if they show success, and I want to remain sensitive to the fact that God's work in human lives is profoundly diverse and totally unpredictable.
  • The only two legit responses to mystery are rejection and worship. We must choose one. About three years ago, I found the Christian faith beyond the reach of my reason. I could either turn away because I didn't understand, or I could open my heart and engage the mystery. The latter was worship, and by the grace of God, I chose it. Thankfully, he has sustained this sense of worship through so many dramatic shifts in thinking.
Well, I finished the run, and upon arrival back at our apartment complex, saw Iver, Adelaine, and Anderson playing baseball. The outworking of my thinking on the Trinity was to choose, despite my exhausted feeling, to join the game. It was God's gift to me to experience the joy of relationship with these kids after working through such a complex web of thoughts.

I guess the point of all this is just that I am thankful. Despite the fact that I can't figure the mechanics of God's love, He still reaches me with his Truth in the middle of day-to-day challenges and relationships. "Ministry" is merely the context where I intentionally seek experiences of His magnificent, totally incomprehensible love at work in and through me.

I hope everyone is as baffled and awed about this experience as I am.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Explanation or Excuse?

I have been silent this week, and I am sorry.

Because finances are so tight, I took some roofing work with my father-in-law. It had me up at 5:45 every morning, and by the time I got home, I had no juice left for blog entries.

However, good stuff did happen. Especially tonight. I'm sure our regular readers are used to hearing about Communicycle, a local bike co-op where we get a chance to interact with some of the older kids from our apartment complex.

Melvin finished building his bike last week. This week, he asked if he could come to the shop to fix his sister's bike for her. We spent a few hours together figuring out how to keep air in her tires, run wires and housing for the brakes, and adjust everything for her height. Melvin left a few times to wreak havoc, but it was generally an amazing time to build a relationship.

In a confessional moment, I told Melvin that sometimes I get too easily annoyed by people.

"Like me?" he asked.

I took the chance to tell Melvin all the things I liked about him, and how, while some things he does are irritating, that he is a joy to be around. I don't think he has any idea that he is so fun to spend time with.

Many of our kids are like this, with all sorts of voices telling them to shut up or act out, unaware that they have been given gifts which bring joy to everyone around them, given the right use.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Stop the Presses

Writer Rebecca Talbot did a beautiful article on Refugee Beads for The Curator Magazine. Click on the blue, underlined letters to see it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Another Gold Rush!

Connie is an art therapist, and we have been trying to get together for a few weeks now. This morning, I picked her up from the MARTA station and, after showing her our home/activities center, I took her down to Clarkston.

We met with NAMB missionary Bennett Eckandem, and we were able to set up a class where she will be teaching refugee kids to express and understand their stories through visual art. I was particularly excited about how she can help Aziz develop his gift.

Another worker mobilized!

This afternoon, another Gold Rush team came out. I'm amazed at how many kids come out for these day camps, and what strong connections happen between them and the teams. We spoke with some of the local volunteers about returning to help during the school year. It would be great to see them continue these relationships.

This last picture is my favorite. Ana is the one doing the face-painting on a volunteer. It's a great image of how those of us who work with international kids end up receiving as much from them as we give to them.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Full Wednesday

We were both up late working on different projects last night, and Ruthie was so tired this morning that she mismatched her slippers. She didn't realize the mistake until Jennifer pointed it out to her at her Refugee Beads class.

Jennifer and Vanessa, two of the girls from our apartment complex, have been volunteering as Ruthie's helpers at Refugee Beads. They made the coffee while Ruthie got started.

Today, Ruthie helped her class enter their sales into a computer. Even basic data entry is a huge hurdle for someone who lived without much technology most of her life.

Meanwhile, I picked up Aziz and we dropped by Bennett Eckandem's activities center. Bennett has been working with Aziz for years now, and his work has made mine pretty easy.

Aziz and I then worked on some writing and video projects for the rest of the morning before I had to leave for my other job.

Eric arrived home from work this afternoon to find a crowd of kids waiting for guitar class. Since there were five guitars and ten kids, the instruments kept switching hands until everyone had a chance to try the chord.

We're still trying to figure out good ways to manage the volume of kids that have been coming to our activities center.

When the school year rolls around and Eric is off to Liberty University, we will need enough manpower to help everyone with their homework and continue building relationships with the kids.

We'll see what happens when that time comes. Until then, we've got plenty of other things to keep up with.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Gold Rush

I was up until midnight working on a project last night, which made my work day about 14 hours long. As a result, I didn't have the energy to write the kind of edge-of-your-seat account of my day that my readers have come to expect.

Now, after a good night's sleep and my morning coffee, I'm ready.

Every year, Perimeter Church in Atlanta hosts a massive outreach to international apartment complexes. One of their teams came to our complex yesterday to run a day camp for our kids.

All of the new kids that came last week returned, and several other kids joined us. Our ministry here is multiplying quickly! More importantly, we're seeing MAJOR changes in the kids we already have relationships with.

Luis, who is holding the chalk and frowning in the picture above, lives in the apartment above ours. From what he tells us and from the ruckus they make up there, it seems he has a pretty hard home life. When we first arrived at the complex, he would not talk to us, and fought with the other kids all the time. He's still trying to maintain his bad boy image, but we've seen his heart soften and we have funny conversations with him all the time.

Iver, pictured above, can hold his own in a soccer match with kids twice his age. He's also humble, generous, and very joyful. Last week, at the end of the events, when asked to say something interesting about himself, Iver said "My name is Iver, and I became a Christian today."
Kalee came for the first time yesterday. She was living with her grandma during the school year, but she and her brother AJ just moved back in with her parents here at Huntington Creek.

As my mother would say, "Mia is cute as a button." She is Kalee's little sister, and we're looking forward to watching her grow with us over the coming years.

Friday, July 3, 2009

White Flight

We're fleeing our life in the international village for a weekend. That means no blogs until Tuesday night. Don't forget to check back in at that time.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Another Art Day

The team from Decatur, Alabama wrapped up their trip this week with some parachute games, a frisbee giveaway, a Bible message, and some heartfelt goodbyes. We saw Jessica, one of the kids, crying as they climbed aboard the bus and pulled away.

It was obvious that they had a big impact in this community.

They introduced us to some new friends who had been coming to their day camp throughout the week.

One of the most popular events at our apartment is "Art Day," where the kids are given projects to unleash their creative little minds. My sister, Lisa, started off the festivities with a marshmallow eating contest. They proceeded to build sailboats with soap and spray paint their own fishes.

When we told Luis about Art Day, he said, "No art for me. I hate art."

Of course, he came, did all the activities, and had a blast.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

One Thing After Another

Yesterday morning, my friend Aaron called unexpectedly. He is a trucker, and his work brought him through Atlanta. He spent the night at our place last night, and asked me if I wanted to help with a job he had to do. We awoke this morning and set out to get the job done.

While I was out, Eric taught guitar lessons to Melvin, Jennifer, and Lesly. They had a great time. Ruthie kept hearing them erupt into laughter.

I got home from an intense day's work just in time to meet our friends Josh and Margaret. We watched The Triplets of Belleville, one of my favorite movies.

Josh is a stellar musician, as is my brother Eric. After the movie, we all started jamming, but I quickly realized that my continued participation could only hurt the musical outcome.

Right before Josh and Margaret left, we opened a great conversation about work in this community. We walked them out to their car, then had to tear ourselves from the conversation so they could get home.