Building Bridges Instead of Walls (Or, How I travel the world every Thursday without leaving town.)

I love to travel.

My whole life I dreamed of traveling. We didn’t have much money, and my single mama saved for years to make Disney World happen for us when I was 13. I was SO EXCITED to be going during Epcot Center’s inaugural year. The World Showcase was my favorite, even though only a few countries were finished back then. I walked through the Disney versions of far away places and dreamed that some day I’d see the real thing.

Headed into college I was sure I’d spend a year or more in the Peace Corps when I finished, but life takes unexpected turns. I was 27 before I went anywhere further than Mexico. My first transatlantic trip was to the London & Paris, and the UK will always have a special place in my heart, having visited friends studying at Cambridge several times over the years.  For 3 years early January meant a work trip to the (beautiful) southern coast of Spain, and I celebrated a delightful Christmas in China. I spent 2 memorable summers teaching English in Uzbekistan, another place where I left part of my heart.

My favorite thing about my pre-marriage and motherhood life was the opportunities it provided to travel, learn other cultures, meet people who are different from me.

Then I got married and became a mom. And moved to Lincoln, NE, which feels like the whitest white bread place on earth sometimes. I felt trapped in the very heartland of the United States, unable to travel, unable to find any outlet for the part of me that feels made to share life with people of other cultures.

There are certainly international students at the University here, and I’ve learned that my white bread city is a major welcome center for refugees (Go Nebraska!) But in those young mom years I never could figure out how to make either of those groups part of my weekly life. I always wanted to, but I never acted on it.

And then, 3 years ago, I found myself sitting with my then-15 year old at the DMV, jumping through the hoops we needed for his driving permit. As he took the written test, I sat in a room with all the waiting people. Is there a place that makes you feel more like a number/less like a person than the DMV? My seat faced directly into the doorway through which the wait-ers were called to jump through whatever hoops they needed to jump. I watched people move from testing location to camera to whomever else they needed to see in order to get what they need.

My eye was caught by a precious older lady, who looked Chinese, and definitely did not have English as her first language. She did not understand what the DMV worker wanted her to do. I’m sure that the DMV is a hard place to work, and maybe this DMV lady was having a rotten day. But her response to the lack of understanding was to repeat herself, several times, growing ever louder, and with an ever more distinct tone of “are you stupid?”

As I sat glued to my chair, memories of my time in China flashed back to me: The welcome I received. The kind politeness of everyone I met, listening as I practiced my 3 super-basic Mandarin phrases. The excitement of every English learner I met, so happy to have a native speaker to talk to.

Something rose up in me. I didn’t have this language for it at the time, but now I recognize it as the desire to build bridges rather than walls.

The desire I felt in that moment to help, to DO SOMETHING, was met 3 days later when my church hosted a community involvement weekend, where they invite various non-profits (faith based and otherwise) to have booths and share information. I walked out of the sanctuary and straight over the the Lincoln Literacy table.

Within a couple of months I had completed training and walked into a room of English Language Learners, well on my way to Thursdays being my favorite day of the week.

I wish I’d kept a running list of the countries represented in my classes. For sure I’ve spent time with people from Myanmar, China, Sudan, Eritrea, India, Ukraine, India, Japan, Korea, Bolivia, El Salvador, Tanzania, Egypt, Afghanistan, and many many friends from Iraq and Kurdistan.

For the first two years I tutored the highest level class, helping them practice reading, writing and speaking. My student friends were refugees, immigrants, wives of men working at the Kowasaki Office here, wives of Graduate Students, Graduate Students themselves. Many of them were far more educated than I am.

In the level 4 class the greatest skill I brought was my ability to talk. We discussed our lives and backgrounds, the weather and the world, we read books, we practiced grammar and we talked politics.

I’ll never forget teaching refugees and immigrants during the divisive 2016 election season, where such terrible things were said about non-Americans, with the focus on borders and walls.

I watched as people from thousands of miles apart, separated by geographical, religious, and gender barriers worked together to understand what their crazy American teacher wanted them to do. I watched them build bridges rather than walls.

I had a front row seat to hard work, determination, and the amount of hard work and determination it takes for someone from the other side of the world to end up here in Lincoln, Nebraska (the narrative that our borders are wide open and it is easy to get into the US is a lie.)

I cried with student friends who had been working hard and hoping endangered family members in their ISIS torn home country would be able to join them here in safety, as their hopes were dashed by ban on travel to the US from Muslim countries.

This year I’m working with beginners, the lowest level. I’m awed by the courage it takes to start life over in a place where you have to have carry a piece of paper with your name and pertinent information because you can’t communicate that yourself. I’m amazed at the sheer audacity of someone who is illiterate in her first language, trying to learn English. I’m in love with the smiles that light up my friends’ faces when they understand.

And from my home right here in the heartland, I am BLESSED. I am made rich. I’m inspired. I’m braver, I want to work harder. This is what I’ve learned from people who look and sound different from me. Though in many ways I’m their teacher, I’m the one who is learning. Though in many ways I’m their host, I’m the one who has been welcomed.

If you’ve been feeling the nudge to build bridges rather than walls, may I gently suggest that you respond, that you step into that, whatever it looks like for you, today? I wish I had done this sooner.

Maybe you’ve felt called to feed the poor. Serve with the homeless. Encourage prisoners. Welcome Refugees. Google what’s available in your area, and jump in. It might be scary, but I bet it will also be good.

If you’re local and interested in  helping English Language Learners, I could not recommend the work that Lincoln Literacy is doing more highly. They will train you, and the commitment is 1-2 hours a week (more if you want.) I tutor a class (8-10) because that was my preference, but they have 1 on 1 tutoring as well. It helps that I have an English Grammar background, and had some idea how to plan lessons. But if you can talk, you can do this. I volunteer in the refugee program, but they also work with folks from the wider international population as well as adults with disabilities who need literacy help. My fellow Lincoln Literacy tutors come from every background you can think of: Stay at home moms, retired folks from many fields, professors, armchair travel dreamers like me.

And if you’re interested in learning more about how we can build bridges instead of walls, there’s a whole chapter on this, including LOTS of practical suggestions, in my friend Osheta’s book, which I talked about last week!

 

Building Bridges Instead of Walls Insta Quote (1)

Photo used in my images is by Ben White on Unsplash

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A Prayer of Thanksgiving for India

I traveled home from India by myself, needing a few extra days before the boys started school.

I have always loved traveling by myself, finding that I hear from the Lord and am able to process in a deeper way while traveling. Also, I love airports. And as any parent knows, after traveling with kids flying solo feels like a dang vacation.

My flight was at 3:30 AM on a Friday morning. I spent Thursday saying goodbye to dear friends in India, giving and receiving gifts, and having last sweet moments with our group of college students. I thought when they left our hotel room at 11 that I was seeing them for the last time. But as I arrived downstairs, I saw big grins on the faces of all the hotel staff and found our whole team waiting to sing me a song and say one last goodbye.

Matt and our friend Abhik dropped me off at the airport at 1AM. I breezed through check in and security, since hardly anyone else was there besides a sweet family who were also traveling through Qatar to Chicago (on their way to Seattle, so they had a longer trip ahead of them: small children.)

That left me with a couple of hours to kill in the Kolkata airport. Knowing I needed to stay awake, and wanting to take the time to think and process over the past 3 weeks, I opened my journal and thought through all that I’d learned and seen in the 3 cities I’d visited. The universities, slums, gardens, rock quarries, malls, the wide variety of places we visited. I wrote about the friends I made, the welcome I received, the things I’d learned. I wrote about the weather and the food and the beautiful people of Kolkata, where we spent the bulk of our time.

Then I thought back to our first days, with the Hope Venture. I thought about what it meant to me, returning to a place of privilege and comfort, after seeing such sorrow and hardship, but also hope and help. I thought about the precious Indian friends I made who do not turn their eyes away from the hurting and broken in their neighborhoods and city. And I asked myself what I could do in my own neighborhood and city for the hurting and broken.

Here is the prayer I wrote that morning. Continue reading

A Story of India: Finding Jesus at the Home of Hope

We spent our first week in India with a team from an amazing organization called The Hope Venture. After praying for and supporting The Hope Venture’s humanitarian work for years, it was amazing to be able to see several projects up close and personal.

We got to meet kids who are able to go to school because of the supplies they receive through the Back Pack Program: It is AMAZING to see what a difference this program makes, especially knowing it is entirely funded by $10 dollar donations!

We visited a vocational training center, where precious women come daily for courses teaching them to sew. This allows them to sew for their children (fabric is much more affordable than finished clothing), as well as eventually sewing for others and helping to provide for and support their families.

Rock Quarry outside of Bangalore, India. People live and work here for next to nothing.

A highlight of our time was visiting a feeding center at a rock quarry. This was one of the bleakest places I have ever been, I can not imagine having a quarry be my workplace and home.

When the Hope Venture partners who run the feeding center arrived, we saw children, faces lit with joy, streaming in from every direction. We participated in the program for the evening (character-based stories and singing), helped to feed the children, and every one of us left a large chunk of our hearts.

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But the memory I’ll carry with me from my time in India until I die was at the Home of Hope. Here’s how The Hope Venture describes this beautiful, heart wrenching place:

Imagine walking or driving through the streets of your neighborhood and seeing hundreds of destitute people abandoned on the streets left to die. Raja, a rickshaw driver, decided that he could no longer sit by and watch these people suffer. He had to do something to help them. He began bringing them into his home. He started to mend their wounds, clean their forsaken bodies, and give them their dignity and hope back.

But he needed a place for those he was rescuing and so he began the Home of Hope in Bangaluru, India. The Hope Venture is proud to partner with this trusted man in any way we can. We want to help those that are suffering reclaim dignity and honor. (www.thehopeventure.org/project/home-of-hope)

Of all the things we expected to do and see in India, the Home of Hope made me the most nervous. I am not afraid of much, I can talk to anyone, and I have seen darkness and poverty, but y’all? There is a reason I am not a doctor or nurse. Just being a mom comes with more physical wounds and body fluids than I can handle sometimes. And I have a front row seat to lots of mental health issues, but I have no experience at all with the kind of mental illness that lands people vulnerable and alone on the streets. I’d been asking God to really let me see people, to not turn away, to break my heart for what breaks His. But I was SCARED. Continue reading

6 Things I Learned from India

Last month I had the privilege and blessing to spend 3 weeks in India with Matt and 8 college students. We visited 3 cities, met hundreds of beautiful people, ate some of the best (and spiciest) food I have ever tasted, and experienced more life in 3 weeks than I could have dreamed. I loved the portions of India I got to see and experience (there is SO MUCH MORE.)

I love India’s beautiful people, especially their smiles, eyes full of joy.

I love the unity in diversity: everything is recognizably Indian, yet each person you meet has vastly different beliefs, thoughts, and stories.

I love that everything in India is turned up a notch: You like people? 1000s of people! You like bright colors? Everyone you meet is swathed in colorful array! You like spicy food? Here it is so hot you will breath fire!

I loved the hospitality we experienced: Welcomed and warmly greeted everywhere we went. We had tea in the home of the director of a company we toured, and when we were finished we tried to take our cups into the kitchen. This CEO literally RAN at us to gather up all the cups he could carry, insisting we sit down and make ourselves comfortable.

I loved meeting people of many different faiths. And I loved seeing my own faith beautifully lived out so far from where I have experienced it, in such a different context but the SAME Jesus.

Often when people travel, they say they were changed, and India for sure changed each of us. But what does that really mean? HOW did India change me? Continue reading