Community Without Borders

The Guatemala Mission Trip, a program through Belk Chapel, is one of Queens’ longest running service activities. This spring break, 13 students and three advisors traveled to Guatemala. This was my third time in this program, my first as an advisor.

Over the years, I have struggled with the concept of a “mission trip.” I have asked myself questions about the purpose: What is the significance of a white Christian male from the United States traveling abroad for the purpose of missions? Do I have knowledge of a deeper truth that I must share with those living outside of the wealthiest country in the world? Do I have a better understanding of community or God’s calling? Do I feel sorry for people that live in material poverty?

My first trip to Guatemala was in 2009.It was eye opening. I gained a greater understanding of why we plan mission trips. I realized that building relationships and community was the purpose. This year, as an advisor for the group, I saw firsthand how friendship develops. It was one of the most beautiful moments for me. It affirmed the power of cross-cultural interactions and proved that we all receive the benefit of mission work. The thought that these trips are for the wealthy to impart their wisdom and gifts to the poor was challenged by what I witnessed this year.

On the second night of the mission trip, Dr. Mowrey presented Emerson Morales (or Momo for alumni), with a photo book of his journeys with Queens. Emerson is a Guatemalan, and has been leading Queens’ groups for ten years. He works for the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America (CEDEPCA), the organization which Belk Chapel has partnered with for almost two decades. Queens was his first group.

At this moment, I realized that I was not just witnessing a Guatemalan and a North American minister be thankful for one another, but I saw two beautiful souls that have grown into a deep friendship. Watching as they shared tears, laughter, and a long hug, my heart filled with appreciation and a deep sense of the need for building relationships.

This year was a reminder that if I am to continue with overseas missions, I must humble myself. The love that connects the human spirit is more important than anything that we can offer one another. As I continue on my own personal journey, I’m reminded that family and community must exist without borders. I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had to travel to Guatemala. I am grateful to know Emerson and Dr. Mowrey. They showed me the deeper meaning of what it means to build relationships and be part of a community.

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Words Matter.

“It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.

Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest.‎ As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.

In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”

(https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/statement-president-international-holocaust-remembrance-day)

Above is the official White House statement written for Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, 2017. What is missing? I believe that in our remembrance of atrocities committed on other humans it is important to name names. We must be reminded of the reality that as humans, we have the potential inside of us to persecute entire populations based on the belief that they’re inferior to us. To avoid such atrocities like the Holocaust, we must be able to visualize the men, women, and children that perished for the Nazi’s selfish lust for power. We must recognize the horror of the millions that suffered under propaganda and authoritarian regimes, not just in Germany in the 30s and 40s, but around the world. Below is a reminder of those that died and suffered, not only under those in power, but also by those who were just doing their jobs during the second world war:

Jews: up to 6 million

Soviet civilians: around 7 million (including 1.3 million Soviet Jewish civilians, who are included in the 6 million above)

Soviet prisoners of war: around 3 million (including about 50,000 Jewish soldiers)

Non-Jewish Polish civilians: around 1.8 million (including between 50,000 and 100,000 members of the Polish elites)

Serb civilians (on the territory of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina): 312,000

People with disabilities living in institutions: up to 250,000

Roma (Gypsies): 196,000–220,000

Jehovah’s Witnesses: Around 1,900

Repeat criminal offenders and so-called asocials: at least 70,000

German political opponents and resistance activists in Axis-occupied territory: undetermined

Homosexuals: hundreds, possibly thousands (possibly also counted in part under the 70,000 repeat criminal offenders and so-called asocials noted above)

     (www.ushmm.org)

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Over Christmas, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. A place of death and suffering. More than one million Jews were exterminated in the death camp of Birkenau. As I stood somberly overlooking the destroyed gas chambers, my heart had never felt heavier. My emotions were not prepared for the raw feelings of despair. How could humans do this to each other? How could this happen?

In these recent weeks in the United States, we’ve seen a surge of fear of the “other.” Islamophobia is running rampant in the minds of many. The idea that our safety is threatened by allowing refugees and immigrants into our country has taken hold and caused a panic that threatens our American way of life. I believe that the current administration’s decision to ban refugees from countries they feel are a threat to the U.S. deepens our fears of the entire Islamic world.

Just like the victims of the Holocaust, those escaping dire situations in Africa and the Middle East have names and stories. They are seeking refuge to our country to seek a better life for themselves and their families. They are fathers, mothers, and children. As someone who chooses to follow Jesus, I am reminded by his words that I must give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, and visit those imprisoned. That is my call. I’m called to love with compassion and unconditionally. I’m called to see the humanity of those perceived to be lesser than I, and to give a damn about their well-being. I must not fear, and to continue to trust that there is a greater authority calling me towards love. I cannot ignore the events taking place in this country. I cannot sit idly by as so many suffer. The words ‘never again’ are not enough to be spoken, but must be lived out with our hands and feet. I must see the faces of the oppressed, name it, remind myself every morning the worth of all humans, and fight like hell to ensure that I do not find myself participating in the repeating of history.

Wanderlust (and sometimes a little lost)

Disrupting the routine life has always been medicine for my soul. There is something refreshing about pausing the normal life of work and study to wander. There is something rejuvenating about getting a little lost and having to just figure it out.
This morning at 6:48 I left on a train from Poprad, Slovakia to figure out a way to Krakow, Poland. Although the two cities are just a couple hours apart, there was no transportation that connects the two. I wasn’t entirely sure the best way to get to Krakow, but there seemed to be a connection from a town in the Czech Republic (which is in the opposite direction). To make matters a little more complicated, I had not booked any accommodation in Krakow so arriving late in the night would not be the most convenient. While on the train I noticed on the company map that they have a bus to Krakow from a town before my intended destination of Ostrava. I decided that maybe this could be a better option. Once I arrived in Bohumin, Czech Republic I thought it wouldn’t be so complicated. I walked out of the station and found a bus that was about to depart, unfortunately not to Krakow. The company did not have a ticket booth and the bus attended informed me that I needed to purchase a ticket online. I had an hour before the next departure for Krakow. I began walking around the town to find a cafe or McDonald’s with wifi. There was neither. There were only two more buses that day to Krakow so I definitely needed to find internet. There was a small restaurant connected to the train station that advertised wifi but my phone (of course) would not connect. 30 minutes until departure. At this point I began wondering if I needed to search for a hotel. There was also one final small shop which advertised wifi. I was finally able to connect and purchase a ticket with fifteen minutes to spare!

Arriving in Krakow, I was still without a room. I knew there are several hotels near the old part of town. I found my way, wandering around and with good signage, to the town center. Fortunately I came across Crakow Hostel right in the center and they had plenty of needs in their dorm!
I would say the day went pretty smoothly which is not always the case when traveling without a plan. I was able to explore a small town in the Czech Republic and still work things out in Krakow.  This wandering around is not part of my daily comfortable routine but I’m thankful for the opportunities I have to just wander.

Today I am grateful for my “godless, liberal professors.”

A few years ago, I had my first experience of being mocked for going to college. As she laughed at my decision to go to college and become “one of those educated people who think they are better than everyone else”, I sat there in disbelief. Her words were like swords in my heart. Aside from being upset and angry, I found myself confused. I couldn’t help but to think that maybe I was wrong for wanting to further my education.

Just a few weeks later, I was told that I “have let my godless, liberal college professors lead me off the path of righteousness.” Again, I sat in disbelief. These remarks did not come out during some sort of argument or because they were intentionally provoked. As I wrestled with these two remarks for months, I could not understand why education is demonized. I could not understand how someone could make a blanket statement about a group of people and their religious practices without knowing any of them. This comment cut deeper than the last. I knew that these remarks were ludicrous and spoke no truth to my experiences, however I was filled with guilt. For many years, I’ve been burdened with the guilt of abandoning my Christian foundation and I’ve allowed these two comments by born again evangelicals to ridicule my thoughts.

On this morning after the election of Donald Trump, I am disappointed but not surprised. I’ve spent the morning processing the results and looking over the exit polls. According to a New York Times article, 81% of white evangelicals or white born-again Christians voted for Trump[1]. I am not as much surprised as I am perplexed. As fascinating as it is to ponder Trump’s relationship with American Christians on a sociopolitical level, on a personal level, the only thought running through my head is, today I am grateful for my “godless, liberal college professors.”

Before I go any further, let me be clear that my experience in college was not defined by moral-less and godless academics brainwashing me into heathenism. I was fortunate enough to have had professors across the faith and political spectrum including atheists. They pushed and challenged me to think critically about my beliefs. I was never mocked but encouraged to move beyond my comfort zone to better understand myself and the world which I live. They taught me respect, tolerance, love, and sacrifice. I began to understand the issue with my adamant support of George Bush in the 2000 election solely based on him referencing God more in his public speeches. Letting go of my absolute truths did not diminish my faith, it only allowed it to flourish. I finally began to listen to others with an open heart. Without the impact of my college professors, I do not believe that I would have received my call to ministry. I would not think more deeply or compassionately about the world around me. I would not be willing to challenge myself. Today, I am grateful for my “godless, liberal college professors.”

Now what? How do I move forward knowing that a majority of my fellow believers do not share the same political viewpoint while maintaining all the qualities that were instilled in me by my mentors? This election has shown me that I can no longer allow guilt to consume my life. I will not allow this guilt to make me believe I’ve abandoned my principles. I will fight the feeling that I must justify my beliefs or faith journey. I will no longer be discouraged by the insults of others. I will not feel shame when I do not share the same opinions as many other Christians. I will not let fear consume me regardless of who our political leaders are. As someone who chooses to follow Jesus, I will maintain hope that we can create a better world. I woke up this morning knowing that regardless of who won the presidency, I would have continued fighting for things that I believe in. I will not compromise my character by demoralizing the other side and making this about the educated verses the non-educated or good Christians verses bad Christian. I will continue finding courage in the Spirit to tear down walls, build bridges, create larger tables,  and pour out love to all. I will pray and support our elected President, knowing that when and if the time comes, I will not be afraid to fight like hell for those not included in this newest vision of the United States.

But today, I will be grateful for my college professors in whom I have discovered a beautiful Spirit in all of them that has taught me to see a future hope even in times distress.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/11/08/us/politics/election-exit-polls.html

4 years

It is crazy to think that my grandmother passed away almost 4 years ago. While I was living in South Korea, I received the news that she had been diagnosed with ALS.

Tonight I was deleting files from my computer and came across the letter that I wrote to her while I was traveling before I surprised her for Thanksgiving in 2012. It says all the things that I wanted to tell her, but never found the words or the time to share. One morning before I left for work in West Virginia, I felt like I needed to read the letter to her. At this point, she was completely immobile. She could not longer speak, swallow, or open her eyes.

While I read her the letter, a single tear emerged from her eye and ran down her face. A few hours later, I got the call that she had passed away. Don’t wait to tell someone what they mean to you or how they’ve impacted your life.

November 11, 2012
Hanoi, Vietnam

Granny,

Our Earthly lives are both too short for me to express my gratitude and love that abound in my heart for me.
I’m so thankful that, not only have you watched me grow into the person I am today, but have been here to guide and assist me through my life thus far.
You were right there beside Pap not letting me play on the computer until I had practiced reading and my new vocabulary words.
You were there to join me in elementary school during lunch for Grandparent’s Day.
You watched me play sports.
You cheered me on as I walked across the stage to collect my high school and university diplomas.
And now, when I travel around the world, you are just an email or skype call away.
Your love and support has never wavered.
You have always been there to congratulate me during the best moments of my life.
Not only have you been there for the best times, but also the darkest times.
There has never been a moment I couldn’t count on your encouragement.
Your words and advice have led me through so much.
Even when you tell me things I don’t want to hear, I know you’re right.
I can always count on your honesty.
You have taught me so much about life: The importance of education, to think for myself, the true meaning of success and happiness, selflessness, to yell ‘bullshit’ at the TV whenever a politician is speaking, take responsibility for myself, to love, to stand firm for what I believe, and most importantly, to just be me. Telling me to be happy and don’t worry. Everything will work out for the best.
Finally, thank you for always being proud of me. Thank you for being excited for me and my endeavors. Thank you for the unconditional love. Thank you for always being a light in my darkness. Your light will shine for eternity. I love you now and always.

 

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Hurting for my community.

It all went dark. My eyes instantly began burning and my throat felt like I swallowed a flame. I was able to open my eyes just long enough to see a hand reaching out for mine. Rachel, a young African American whom I befriend on my walk toward city center, had one hand covering her eyes and the other reaching out. I grabbed on tightly and assured her I was here.

As my vision cleared up, I clung firmly to Rachel’s hand, silent, and scared. She and I stood there watching just several feet away from the first of several tear gas canisters were shot. Although silent, I knew that both of us were now thinking that we cannot leave.

I’ve seen this image before, however from the comfort of my own home. I would read through Twitter and Facebook during previous protests around the country. I would lose words and feel sad but understood how thankful I was that all of it went away for me as soon as I set down my phone or turned off my computer.

Now, the riot police are just a few feet away, face to face with those frustrated with the injustices in our society.

I look into the face of Rachel, into the faces of all those protesting for their voice to be heard. I can’t even imagine to begin to understand their pain. I can’t understand what it is like to live in a system of oppression for so long.

I look into the faces of the police, beyond their masks. As they stand shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield, I can only assume that many of them are thinking about their families at home. Will they ever see them again?

What do I do? What is my role in all of this? I’m angry, frustrated, sad, and hurt. My heart aches for humanity. I’ve followed Jesus for so long that I should have an easy answer. I don’t.

But there I stood, hand in hand with Rachel. Just an hour ago she was a stranger. After the tear gas, she became my comfort. Part of me wanted to run. Curl up in my bed and resume my experience via Twitter. But something urged me to stay. It was this moment that I truly realized that there is something greater than myself. There is something greater than fear. There is something powerful in being present.

I can no longer be the white man speaking with certainty and absolute truths about the experiences of others. But in this moment, I can be the non-violent human, standing side by side with another human, seeking justice in order to reach peace. I can be present. I must be present.

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Experiences are still important.

It is that time of the year again. Church youth groups pack up for a week of mission around the country and world. I have read several articles and books that bring light to the negative consequences from short term mission projects. The argument is that these seemingly good deeds perpetuate the problems that low-income and homeless communities face while simultaneously allowing teenagers from middle to high income families to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

On many aspects, I do agree with critics of short term mission projects. However, what is the alternative? To not go? To raise money and just send cash to designated organizations without any human interaction?

After our week in Atlanta, I am reminded by the impact of personal experiences and thoughtful reflections. We participated in an Urban Immersion program organized by DOOR, a faith-based network of cities that provides opportunities for service and learning. I still believe that having personal experiences and opportunities to see first-hand issues that our society faces is so important for our teenagers. These weeks are not about making ourselves feel good about our work, but we should leave them remembering the names and faces of folks we have met. It is about connecting our lives with the lives of others. Organizations can benefit greatly from cash donations, but it is equally important to teach our children and youth to become personally involved in the problems of our communities. I was so impressed with our group and how they interacted during our time of volunteering throughout the Atlanta community. Through our opportunities to jump into an organized chaos to prepare groceries for dozens of families at a local food co-op, serve meals at soup kitchens, interact with friends finding refugee on the block of the church because it is a safe zone where they cannot be arrested, work in urban gardens, visit the Martin Luther King Center and Museum, etc, our youth pushed themselves to go beyond their comfort zones to connect, learn, and hopefully become frustrated by the marginalization, oppression, and discrimination of others. These experiences allow us the opportunity to see the raw reality that so many face on a daily basis.

The DOOR staff were so impressed with the depth of conversation and reflection that our youth showed. In fact, the director said that she wished she had more groups like ours during evening reflections. This is true reflection of the community that their surrounded by at Park Road and is a proud reminder that I am part of it.

Because the congregation makes these summer trips possible, please take the time to read through several of our youth reflections on moments at our different sites that stood out for them during the week.

 

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