Bird on a Bare Branch

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

On Short-Term Missions December 28, 2011

Filed under: Faith — Jen @ 8:46 pm

I wish churches (and youth groups and parachurch organizations) would start paying attention to THIS and thoughtfully reassess how they do missions.




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: 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.


On Being a Teacher Again January 10, 2010

Filed under: Faith,Teaching — Jen @ 8:49 pm

Just as the Israelites were instructed to tell and retell stories of how God worked in their lives – to always remember –  I need to write my story about the last couple months before I forget, before I become swamped in difficulties and challenges.

As I mentioned in my last post, I never, ever thought I’d be back in Houston teaching first grade.  Never, ever.  And I didn’t look for a teaching job either when I found out that I couldn’t return to Mozambique.  In fact, I had decided that I would look for other positions abroad or maybe get a job at Starbucks just to earn a little cash but to do something mindless while I figured my life out.  I also thought maybe I could substitute teach starting in January.  Which is how I ended up on my old school district’s website one evening in November.

It was a bit early to think about subbing, especially since I wanted to take the rest of the year off.  But something prompted me to do some research that night into what I needed to start subbing.  I never did find out what I needed because in the confusion of the district’s website, I ended up on their vacancies page and saw two postings:  third grade bilingual and first grade.  First grade is what I had taught for three years.  I clicked on the link and realized I knew the principal because she had been the AP at the first school I taught at.  The deadline was two days later.  I knew I needed to apply.  It was too weird that I should come across that particular posting without looking for it.  I immediately emailed the principal to let her know I’d be sending my stuff in.

I was jittery that night.  In a sense, I knew I already had the job.  And that scared me because I didn’t want to be in the States teaching.  I wanted to go back to Mozambique.  On the other hand, I knew there were so many positives to teaching in this season:  earning some money so that I could buy a plane ticket to go to Mozambique in June to collect my things and say good-bye properly to friends and colleagues, gain some more teaching experience, renew my teaching credentials which expire in March, connect to church and friends for more than just a couple weeks, etc.  There were many reasons why staying in Houston and teaching would be ideal.

A couple weeks later I went for the interview and felt an instinct to turn around when I walked into the school building.  Thoughts of, “What am I doing here?  I left this three and a half years ago!  This can’t be my life again,” ran through my head.  And I prayed, “God, you know I don’t want to be in Houston right now.  You know I’m weirded out by interviewing for a teaching job.  But I applied because I believe you brought this job to my attention.  I will interview in my best ability.  If you want me to have this job, give me this job, and I will gratefully accept it.  If you don’t want me to have this job, please give it to the person who most deserves it, and I will also gratefully accept that.”  It was a no-lose situation for me.

The next day, the principal called and offered me the job.  I gratefully accepted it, but I also cried on the way home from a meeting I had been at as the reality of not going back to Mozambique and now living in Houston hit me.  This is my life:  I am once again a first grade teacher living in Houston.  I couldn’t help wondering that if I’m right back where I started, what was my time in England and Mozambique about.

In the following couple weeks, I visited my new class several times to meet the kids and get a feel for their routines and curriculum.  I found out that their first teacher had been fired, and they were on their second long-term sub.  I would be their fourth teacher of the year.  Many teachers stopped me in the hallway or came through the classroom and told me how excited they were to have me.  The language arts specialist, who had been working daily with my class, was particularly enthusiastic.  She told me how the principal had come to her one day and said, “You’ll never guess the email I got last night,” in reference to the one I had sent her letting her know I’d be applying for the job.  The language arts specialist explained, “We were worried about filling that position mid-year.”  I said, “Oh, didn’t anyone else apply for the job?”  She said, “142 people did.”  More affirmation that  God wanted me to have the job.

During those days of observations, I also began to get a feel for the kids.  Here were a couple conversations I had:

Boy:  Can you help me write this letter?

Me:  Sure, what do you want to say to your mom?

Boy:  That I love her, even though she’s in jail.


Girl:  Teacher, she said the t-word!

Me:  I’m sorry, I don’t know what the t-word is.

Girl demonstrates by cupping hands around chest.


Boy:  (Pointing to some snacks that kids had brought in for a holiday party)  Can we take those snacks home?

Me:  Then there wouldn’t be any for the party on Friday.  Wouldn’t it be more fun to have a party?

Boy:  But I don’t have any food at home.


I also found out that another child’s parents beat him, and a little girl told another teacher that her brother might go to jail for raping a girl.  Her brother is 13.  And this girl is six and knows what rape is.

It struck me that parts of Houston are as much a mission field as Beira.  The issues are the same.  There might not be AIDS orphans here, but there are “jail orphans” and hunger, poverty, and abuse.  This week it’s been in the 30s, and there are several children in the school who do not have jackets.

My heart changed toward teaching.  I began to get excited about developing relationships with my students, loving them, encouraging them.  I began to get excited about setting up my classroom and doing lessons – using my creativity in ways I knew I was good at and hadn’t been able to exercise in awhile.  I still struggle with “going backwards”, but relationships are relationships, and love is love, whether it’s with high school students in Beira or elementary school students in Houston.  I want my heart to be open to that and remember Who brought me to Beira and Who brought me to Houston, especially when things start getting tough.


Give Thanks in All Circumstances December 1, 2009

Filed under: Faith — Jen @ 2:40 am

Several months ago I read Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place for the first time.  It’s the true story of a Dutch woman and her family who provided asylum to Jews in their home during WWII.  Corrie and her sister, Betsie, and their father were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps.  What is remarkable about their story is the hope and joy they – especially Betsie – continued to have despite their suffering.  At one point they were sent to a dormitory meant to house 400 prisoners but which accommodated 1400 crammed onto straw-filled, flea-infested mattresses.  Bestsie’s response was to thank God, despite Corrie’s protests.  Corrie grudgingly began thanking God for various things but interrupted Betsie when Betsie thanked God for the fleas.  Betsie’s response was that God instructed them to give thanks in all circumstances, which included the fleas.

Corrie and Betsie continued to pray in that room, which was not only filled with fleas but with despair and anger.  They started a Bible study and worship time with their fellow prisoners using a small Bible they had smuggled into the camp, and the atmosphere among those 1400 prisoners began to change dramatically.  The wardens were particularly strict and violent at that camp, but for some reason the nightly worship was never interrupted because the wardens mysteriously never entered the dormitory.

Some time later Betsie announced to Corrie that she had discovered why the wardens never entered that room…because of the fleas!  There was reason to be thankful for the fleas after all!

I was reminded of this story on Thursday morning when we read the passage from 1 Thessalonians about giving thanks:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  If Betsie Ten Boom could give thanks while she was living in hell on earth, how much more should I be giving thanks.  Even if I can’t go back to Mozambique.  Even if I’m not earning an income.  Even if I don’t have health insurance.  Even if I sometimes feel completely lost.  We love the call and response:  “God is good…” , “All the time!”, “All the time…”, “God is good!”  But we tend to say this when things are good, forgetting the “all the time” part.  All the time.  In all circumstances.

Everyone is very sympathetic when they hear that I can’t go back to Mozambique.  “What a huge disappointment,” they say.  Yes, it is.  But in the midst of the disappointment, or maybe because of the disappointment, I am thankful for many, many things.  (Believe me, this only comes from practice of being in previous situations of big disappointment.)  Here are the top ten things I’m thankful for (in no particular order):

1.  Friends who willingly let me stay with them and make me feel part of the family

2.  Family who make me feel part of the family 🙂

3.  A car to use until Christmas

4.  “Support surplus” so that I’m financially okay during this time of transition

5.  A job interview on Tuesday and other opportunities to pursue

6.  Caring friends around the country and world

7.  Good health

8.  Good food

9.  A comfortable bed

10.  Even if I lost any or all of the above, my God would still be with me.

I don’t think I would ever be able to give thanks in the Ten Booms’ circumstances.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t be able to give thanks in even less dire circumstances.  But I’d like to be able to.  I’d like to begin putting into practice giving thanks in all circumstances.


Acknowleging the Providence of Almighty God November 27, 2009

Filed under: Faith — Jen @ 5:26 am

“New York, 3 October, 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.”   (George Washington)