Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

Passion + Relationship + Cultural Understanding + Skill = Success September 27, 2011

Filed under: Culture,Faith — Jen @ 3:36 am

The other night I had the privilege of listening to an Indian woman give a presentation on her work as an aftercare provider for rescued minor girls from sex trafficking and prostitution.  I was impressed with, but not awed by, the intensity of her work and the seeming heroism involved in going on a raid into a brothel and the drama involved with taking the girls to safety, escorting them to the police station, helping them press charges against their perpetrators, and then trying to maintain a safe environment for them in the hours, days, weeks, and months following.  Her life is literally an on-going action/adventure/drama movie.  Her talk was the kind that inspires college students to say they are going to dedicate their lives when they graduate to fighting sex-trafficking in India.


I was impressed but not blown away by that.  What blew me away was the love, the compassion, the dedication, the strength, and above all the cultural, psychological, emotional, and spiritual intuition this woman has for the work she does.  She said it all started as just a job, but after her first raid her heart broke for the enslaved girls.  Since then she has dedicated her life to aftercare.  She now runs an aftercare home, which is a fairly new endeavor.  She said there are many organizations that provide aftercare, but many are lacking the thoroughness with which her organization tries to provide it.  For example, the aftercare providers are physically present with the girls at every moment from the raid to being housed.  They take the girls in a separate car than their perpetrators, who are taken in police cars.  Most of the time both the perpetrators and girls are thrown together in the back of police cars.  Another example, is that counseling is provided in the home.  It seems obvious that this would be offered, but apparently not everyone provides this.  Also, this organization does home studies with the girls’ families to make sure it is safe for girls to return home.  Most of the time it is not since it is often the families who sold them into prostitution in the first place.


It is not an easy job.  She made it very clear how difficult it is to work with these girls, who sometimes don’t want to be rescued, who have been trained to fight, who don’t know how to trust adults, and who are prone to act out.  She stressed how difficult it is to find trained and dedicated staff to work with them.  But she is very committed.  These are her girls, and she will fight for them.  Part of why she knows how to help them is because she is from there.  She knows how the police and the courts work.  She knows how the culture works.  She can communicate with the girls in their own language.  Because she is from there, she has relationships with people in the community.  She can call on local churches to help because she is connected to them.  She is also able to do the work she now does because she had been on staff for five years with an organization who rescues girls.  Her time with them gave her the experience she needed to start the aftercare home.


After she spoke, a local woman invited those in attendance to come to her organization’s kick-off event next month.  She works for a non-profit that is dedicated to training overseas educators well in understanding the culture in which they are going to serve by “applying the valuable methods of cultural anthropology and research and architecting an advanced educational network and support system.”  It’s not just about bringing educational skills to another culture or learning a language but about knowing the people you are going to serve.  I am all about this.  And it was a good piggyback to the woman who had just presented.


THEN a gentleman was introduced who was going to share for a few minutes about an education project in Africa.  Naturally, my ears perked up, and I was excited to know where and what he was doing.  Until he started sharing…  I’ve heard this story too many times:  He had gone on a mission trip to Kenya, had a conversation with a couple boys in a slum who had few educational opportunities and would likely remain in the slum for the rest of their lives, his heartstrings were pulled, and now he’s soliciting help to start a tuition-free school in that community.  He is not an educator.  He has only spent a week or two in Kenya.  He admitted he has no idea what he’s doing, but he’s determined to set up a school for that community.


I talked to him afterwards to try to find out more about his experiences and his connections in Kenya.  I told him that I had done educational development work in Mozambique, but when he found out that I hadn’t actually started a school he didn’t seem that interested to know anything about my experiences.  I encouraged him that his first step should be researching what organizations are already doing educational work in that community since they are the ones who are already established and already know the community.  He didn’t seem that interested in that either.  I encouraged him to find local churches that shared the same passion.  Who are the Kenyans who are equally passionate about providing quality education for their own children?  They are the ones who should be driving this effort.  He agreed he needed to partner with someone on the ground, but he was reluctant to do it with Kenyans because he knows how corrupt they are.


He was a pleasant man, and I appreciate his passion and his drive to do something to help.  I wish more people were as eager as he is.  I often wish I were as eager as he is.  But the conversation with him was such a contrast to what we had just heard from the previous two women who had shared.  Yes, I’m sure that community could greatly benefit from a free school.  I would say every community in Africa could.  But it will fail if it is based on American idealism alone with a complete lack of professional expertise plus cultural ignorance.


From the Archives: Change in Opinion September 24, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 5:03 pm

This was my application essay for the Honors Program at Linfield College, written in March 1996.  The prompt was:  Examine your recent life and write about a time in which you made a significant change in your opinion, attitude or behavior.  I was accepted into the program and attended the college for a year before transferring to U of M.  Apparently, I had some strong political opinions at 18!  It’s interesting to be reminded of what was happening in Bahrain in 1996 as a background to what’s happening there now.  The current uprisings are not new.  They are just new in the western media.


“All that remains of seven precious lives…” was the bold title inside the front page of last Friday’s edition of the Gulf Daily News.  Beneath this heading were five disturbingly graphic photographs of the victims of the restaurant arson attack.  The short commentary accompanying the pictures seemed to be an appeal to the public’s emotions rather than the straightforward factual information that is required of any newspaper.  The obvious intent was to increase the anger and hatred for the readers toward the terrorists.  That was exactly my emotional response; I became more angry with the government.


Four years ago when I moved to Bahrain, I had the pleasure of sharing breakfast with the Emir outside his beach house.  He was a friendly man, who lived in a palace less extravagant than many wealthy Bahrainis.  This meeting gave me an ititial good impression of the local government.  When I began school, I realized that I was in the company of royal family members and other important Bahrainis, who were supportive of the government.  Because these were the only Bahrainis with whom I ever came into contact, I assumed the majority of the local population was satisfied with the way the Emir, the Premier, and the Crown Prince were running the country.  In fact, it bothered me the way the United States kept pushing the idea of democracy.  In the U.S. democracy means high crime rates and low moral values.  How would this system of government benefit a monarchy that upholds the family and boasts virtually non-existent crime?


Because of the apparent peace on the island, it came as quite a surprise to the expatriates, and probably some wealthy locals, that a group of lower-class Bahrainis were angry enough at the government to throw stones at policemen and burn tires and gas cylinders in their villages.  The reaction of most expatriates was anger at these rioters for disturbing our peaceful existence within their country.


The initial reason for the uprisings was unhappiness with unemployment.  Many young Bahraini men are unemployed because the government has given the jobs to foreigners, who have a stronger work ethic than local labor.  The problem did not stay at this level, however.  It grew to include the majority of the poor Shi’ite Muslim community, who form a different religious group from the ruling family, who are Sunni.  At the start of the riots, I was informed that about 70 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ite while the Sunni minority are the ones in control.  For years these ruling Sunni have oppressed their Shi’ite neighbors for fear that they would come to power.  Despite this eye-opening piece of information, I still condemned the actions of the villagers.


Around May, the nightly gas cylinder explosions and tire burning ceased.  It was not until troubles started up again a few months ago that my views on the whole situation changed.


I was raised to believe, as most of us were, that the ones who go against the law are the “bad guys”.  Therefore, when a photograph of a fire-gutted car would be published on the front page of the GDN, it was the Shi’ite villagers who were the “bad guys”.  What the newspaper failed to show were the pictures of the other “bad guys”, the men in uniform who drove through villages every night destroying families and lives by arresting every man on the street then taking them to unknown destinations where torture awaited them.


It is understandable, then, why the dissidents made the move from their previous futile acts of violence to planting bombs in restaurants, hotels, and even an ATM of a bank.  It was reported that the ATM bomb exploded in the hands of the saboteur, which killed him and injured two counterparts.  The man who was killed was lucky; he managed to avoid a life filled with government-induced torture.


While there have been several attacks lately, none have been as devastating as the recent restaurant firebombing.  The way in which this attack was performed – ski masks, blocking exits – was uncharacteristic of the tactics normally used.  That, along with a personal conversation with a Shi’ite man who disclaimed Shi’ite involvement, plus the newspaper report that the masked men were caught only two days after the incident, have led many to believe that it was actually a stunt pulled by the government.  In this way  the government can justify the unjust actions that have been taken against their opposition.


Although I do not support the idea of arson or planting bombs, I am more sympathetic with the dissidents than with the government.  I understand their anger at being discriminated against and oppressed by their own people.  There are less violent ways of expressing this dissatisfaction, but the government does not seem to respond positively to peaceful protest.  While riots should be dealt with in a forceful manner, it should not exceed that to forms of brutality.  The government is making the mistake of ignoring the needs of its won people, yet the leaders are too stubborn and arrogant to admit that they are even partially at fault.  In this self-denial and poor handling of the situation, the government is causing its own demise.


From the Archives: Am I a Missionary? September 23, 2011

Filed under: Culture,Faith — Jen @ 9:24 pm

Wow – I just found some writing I did in high school and college!  It’s hard for me to remember what my 17- and 18-year-old self was like, and these offer a little insight.  I’m not sure why I have these particular pieces and not others.  I know there were many more school essays and college application essays that were also printed out and filed away somewhere.  I’m just not sure where.


I think this is something I wrote for Brio, a Focus on the Family magazine for teenage girls.  I don’t think it was ever published, and I’m not sure what prompted me to write it in the first place.  It’s dated August 16, 1995.  I love how knowledgeable I thought I was about missions. 🙂



One of the churches in the U.S. that supports us sends us a regular “care package”, which is a box usually containing chocolate chips, angel food cake mixes, and Jello and pudding mixes which are all things we have trouble finding here and really appreciate.  However, we have also received swatches of cloth, thread, toothpaste, and even a box of dates (we can get fresh dates by picking them off the trees in our yard).  Examining the contents of these “care packages” gives us an idea of how people back home view missionaries.  They see us as living in a mud hut with no running water, having to know Arabic to communicate with people, and riding on camels to schools.  My life is quite the opposite.  I live in a modern house with three bathrooms and air-conditioning.  I nly know a few words of Arabic, yet I can still communicate with the locals because they all speak English.  In fact, I am studying French at the America school that I get to by car.  After school I might get some frozen yogurt at TCBY, and on the weekends I might stop at McDonald’s with my friends for a bite to eat.  In the evenings, I’ll watch an American TV show on television, or I might call one of my friends on the cordless phone to make plans to see an English movie at the cinema or go ice-skating at the indoor rink.  It sounds like I’m living in the U.S.  Am I no longer a missionary?  On the contrary.


When I was 13 and living in Muscat, which is much the same as Bahrain, an elderly American woman, who had been a missionary in oman during World War II, came back on one of her frequent visits to the Gulf.  She had been what our supporting churches would have called a “real” missionary since she had been a nurse working with the bedouin (desert nomads) in Oman.  On this particular trip to Muscat, this lady was going into the desert to visit some of the bedouin families that she used to work with, and she wanted my family to join her.


We drove through the desert in our four-wheel drive for a couple hours until we came across a group of makeshift houses in a cluster.  Our friend got out of the car and immediately greeted the owners of one of the “houses” with a warm Arabic greeting.  She then introduced our family.  My father, who speaks Arabic, was able to communicate while the rest of us simply nodded and smiled while we shook hands.  We were all invited into the “house” for traditional Arabic coffee and fresh dates.  This is what my mother, my brother, and I concentrated on while my father and our friend carried on  a conversation with our hosts.


We were informed that there would be a wedding there that night.  A celebration would be held in this “village” with singing, dancing, and the sacrifice of a goat for the 17-year-old bride and her husband-to-be, who was mostly likely in his late twenties.  It was actually an unusual marriage:  the bridge had been kept in her parents’ house for too long, and the only man who was willing to take her at such an old age was one who had already been married and divorced.  Girls are usually between 12 and 14 years of age when they marry.  In fact, the bedouin men asked my father where my husband was.  He told them that I was not married.  They said, “But she will marry soon?”  My father then explained that I had to finish secondary school, then I would go on to university, and perhaps after that I would get married.  They were shocked because by that age, their girls were beginning to plan their daughters’ weddings. The men felt sorry for me and were very kind:  they offered to find me a husband!


When we had all finished our food and drink, our missionary friend informed us that she would be putting medicine in some of the children’s eyes since many of them had conjunctivitis.  She asked us to help her.  We pulled the tailgate of a pickup truck down to act as a hospital bed.  children and their mothers gathered around us for their eye drops.  Most of them were quite calm, but one little girls was screaming and crying and kicking; she refused to remain still.  The nurse asked me to hold her head still while she dropped the medicine in the girls’ infected eyes.  I felt very important, assisting by holding the screaming girl’s head tight with both hands.


There I was being a “real” missionary.  This is the work that many churches in the United States associate with overseas missionaries.  However, that was the only experience of its kind that anyone in my family has ever had in the nine years that we’ve been in the Gulf.  That is the missionary work that our friend had been called to many years ago, but our calling is much different.  We were called to work with the English-speaking expatriates, who are here from other countries working as doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, engineers, maids, company managers, etc.  This does not make us less missionaries than our friend working with the bedouin.


This past year I found myself being a good example of a missionary.  I was sitting in the classroom of a teacher that I was an aide for, chatting with a friend of mine who’s half American, half Kuwaiti and was an aide for the same teacher.  It was the end of the day, and I happened to mention something about going to youth group that night.  She didn’t know what i was talking about and asked what youth group was.  When I explained it to her, she became very interested and asked if she could come.  Of course I told her that she could, and I was excited when she showed up one night.  Unfortunately, with her busy school schedule, she never made it to another meeting.  However, recently this same friend stopped me in the hall after class and asked when and where my father preached.  I told her that we had a service in Manama on Sunday nights at 6:30 and another service in Awali on Friday mornings at 11:00.  She told me that she’d see me on Friday morning.  That Friday, she showed up at the service with her mother, who probably hasn’t been to church since before she got married.  I was worried that after sitting through the service, neither of them would want to return, but afterwards my friend gave me a hug and told me she felt really good.  I said, “Great, so you’ll be back.”  She enthusiastically replied, “Definitely!”  She has managed to make it to as many services as she can since then, and her mother has been attending regularly since that first Friday!


This situation could have occurred anywhere in the world, and it doesn’t taken an overseas missionary to make it happen.  Being a missionary does not only mean learning a foreign language and bringing medical supplies and Bible translations into other countries, although this is a very important kind of missionary work.  I was being a missionary with the bedouin, but more importantly I was being a missionary in my American high school.  I would encourage other teenagers to look into overseas mission if that’s what they feel led to do, but don’t be discouraged if that’s not what God has in mind of you.  There are just as many mission opportunities close to home.  As long as you’re spreading the word of God and the love of Jesus, it does not matter if you’re preaching in a foreign language half way around the globe or if you’re inviting a friend to youth group in your hometown.


We’re Not Dying Like Chickens, But They Are…What’s Our Response? September 19, 2011

Filed under: Culture,Faith — Jen @ 2:35 am

I have mentioned my friend Dara before.  She is an American friend, who I first met in Mozambique when I lived there when she was on her way back to the US after a stint in a town a few hours away from Beira.  I reconnected with her last summer when I was visiting Moz because she is now back there trying to adopt a little girl.

I was chatting with her on skype last week and was reminded of how hard life in Mozambique is.  It’s hard to pinpoint because it’s not a country at war or recently post-war or in any kind of political turmoil.  It is generally safe and is hailed internationally as an economic success story based on the growth it has made since its civil war.  Yet daily life is SO hard.  There is an oppression there, a darkness that hangs over the country.  There is a general lack of motivation to work, to find ways to thrive.  Despite the supposed economic growth, there is extreme poverty throughout the country.  There is disease and corruption and lack of education and lack of decent infrastructure.  Did I mentioned the disease and the corruption?

Dara’s latest blog post nails it on the head.  Any one of us who has spent time in Mozambique could have written this post.  It’s daily life there.  She captures both the financial and spiritual poverty that pervades the culture.

Her last paragraphs hit me hard.  I lived there!  I’m aware.  Yet I’ve quickly become caught up in my culture here where I skim the news online, go for my daily run, take my shower with guaranteed water pressure and hot water in my air-conditioned apartment, eat whatever I fancy, and hop in my car to buy more of whatever I fancy.  I can’t remember the last person I’ve known here who’s died.  I don’t know anyone who is sick.  Yes, drought is destroying livelihoods, and fires are destroying houses.  But not every day, all year, to every community in the state.  It’s not drought and fire in Mozambique, but it just as well could be.  Every day.  Every year.  To every community.  What is my response to thatWhat is your response to that?  What is the Church’s response to that?

At the very least if you are reading this, please say a prayer for Dara.  Say a prayer for the mothers who lose their babies.  Say a prayer for those whose houses are so easily destroyed by hail or wind.  Say a prayer for the guard and those who believe that their lives are worth nothing more than chickens.


Remembering September 12, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 2:20 am

Has it really been ten years?  That’s what I keep thinking, what keeps coming up in conversation.  I don’t watch much TV and don’t read much online news, so I’ve barely caught any of the ten-years-on reports or tributes.  Part of me wants to avoid it.  I wonder:  Is this really helpful for the families who lost loved ones to keep replaying footage and speculate and commemorate?  I don’t know.


As a child I remember my parents saying that they could remember exactly where they were when they heard the news that JFK had been assassinated.  They claimed everyone in their generation and older could do exactly the same.  I thought that was weird.  I tried to compare it to events in my life.  Could I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait?  Vaguely.  Could I remember exactly where I was when I heard that the first Gulf War had started?  Vaguely.  When the occupation was over?  Vaguely.


But I remember vividly that Tuesday morning in Ann Arbor when I was housesitting for friends on the Old West Side.  It was such a gorgeous morning that I decided to ride my bike to my part-time job at Jimmy John’s.  (As a side note of explanation:  I was in Ann Arbor for about six months between stints in Honduras.  I was substitute teaching but also working at Jimmy John’s just for fun.)  Our church offices were in a house across the street from JJ’s, so I carried my bike up there to leave it.  Tom met me at the door and told me we were under attack and to come and watch TV.  There were the images that are burned into every American’s psyche.  Immediately I knew Arabs would be blamed.  I pleaded with God for it not to be true, knowing the societal repercussions.  I wanted to stay and watch more but had to be at work.  As customers entered the store, we knew which ones knew and which ones didn’t.  The ones who didn’t always asked what was going on, why was everyone so somber, why were people angry, what were we listening to on the news.


The rest of my story is like so many others’:  Who do I know in NY or DC?  Are they okay?  I need to call my family and my boyfriend.  A memorial on campus.  A memorial at church.  Crying at every news item.  Feeling patriotic.  Grieving for the families whose lives were directly touched.


I still tear up when I see the images or hear reports.  I cried on the way to church this morning listening to a youth choir sing the national anthem.  They have no personal recollection of what happened.  That’s the strangest thing for me – that my former students were not even alive ten years ago.  Stories of that day are like stories to me of JFK’s assassination.  Would my students think it’s weird that I know exactly where I was when I heard the news?


For a younger generation 9-11 is another JFK or Pearl Harbor.  Children will hear their teachers and parents and grandparents talk about it.  But ten years on (and 48 years on and 70 years on) we still grieve and we still pray for comfort and for healing.  For some, ten years was a lifetime ago, but for others it is still so fresh.