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17 September 2018

254/365

They come through our gate nearly every time the community center opens, a sister and brother with slight builds and dark hair and big brown eyes. You know when they arrive. They tend to be loud and proud. The little guy's pitch is higher than the Muppet Elmo. I confess, sometimes we ask him to repeat himself just so we can listen to him and then smile. Sometimes the middle brother comes along with them too, or one of several cousins, a couple of whom have names so similar that only a single vowel makes them different.

We started to know them and learn bits of their story about a year ago. Their dad died, probably the victim of a lifetime of hard circumstance compounded by poor choices. Sometimes it seems as we grieve his loss more than the kids do, these kids who have known loss after loss and keep on living life very matter of factly. They live in a small house a couple of blocks over from us, though their address has changed at least a couple times since we've known them. We're never quite sure what family members will be in their home when we walk them back in the evenings. Right now, they are all in school and seem to enjoy it. But, we are all too aware that could change on any given day.

These kids, they have few secrets. We're pretty sure that they say whatever crosses their mind. During Vacation Bible School, the cooking activities thrilled the youngest boy. He took a bite of his fruit tart and exclaimed, "¡Es deliciOSO!" The pendulum swung dramatically by the end of that same week, when he sobbed, nearly inconsolable, over a misplaced and then lost bottle of bubbles. The oldest, her expressions leave nothing hidden. Broad hand motions nearly always accompany her words, almost like a miniature conductor directing her own private orchestra. On this day during art class, obviously unimpressed by the origami project that is not going well at all, she singsongs cheerfully, "Aburrida, aburrida, estoy muy aburrida..." ("Bored, bored, I am very bored..."). I roll my eyes and laugh knowingly, and yet try to salvage the activity before the poorly folded boats shipwreck completely.

But at the end of that same class, this same very distracted girl grabs a piece of the square paper and the black sharpie pen we are using to make eyes on folded fish. Out of the corner of my own eye, I see her scribbling. I figure at least she's managing to entertain herself for the last few minutes instead of distracting the others. After a minute, she hollers my name and holds out the now folded paper. I take it and open it, and find the sweet note pictured above.
"Thank you for being so nice to me I love you much Kristin"
(note- in your mind, be sure to say "Kris-teeeen," with so much eeeee that you don't really hear the n...)
What?! A thank you note?! I really appreciate that unexpected token. I look my young friend in the eye and thank her and give her a hug.

But then her brother, seeing what just happened, he wants to write something too. The oldest of the two grabs my note and starts scratching out his own, copying his sister's words the same, one by one except for changing the name at the end to include one of my teammates. The youngest brother, he's in first grade and though he sings out the vowels with zeal, he's not really up to writing a full letter on his own, not quite yet. Determined not to be left out, he instructs me to write out his words. He dictates,
Te quiero mucho. ¡Doy gracias! (He said that part Very Enthusiastically so I added the exclamation points.) Kim Ashley (his intended recipients)
"I love you so much. I am thankful! Kim Ashley"
He grabs the work almost before I dot the final "i" and shoves it at my friend and runs out of the room, already late to the next class.

Really, the class this day was something of a fail- I struggled with the origami and the kids struggled with the origami and there was not one bell, not one whistle, to make this day memorable or especially note-worthy. Even so, these kids must see something worthwhile in their time with us, enough to leave us with handwritten reminders. I think about resilience, about the grace that allows these young ones living in the midst of what some would consider chaos and hardship to still understand and express love. I think about how much grace we've been shown in our own lives, despite our impatience and all manner of sin, and I'm humbled. I think today maybe the teacher became the student.

11 September 2018

251/365

Simple Saturday gratitude-

"Then you will know that I am the Lord.
    Those who trust in me will never be put to shame.” (Isaiah 49:23 NLT)

"...the real display of faith is when we trust God's character even when we don't understand his responses or timing." (Carolyn McCulley)

Hot mug, quiet desk.
Comfort apple cinnamon oatmeal.

The satisfaction of a steaming bucket and clean floors.

An entire day with no where to be.

Blue skies and puffy clouds and the bright rays of sun.

“As she read, at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy, and all alone in the house, the leaf shadows shifted and the afternoon passed. ” (Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)

An afternoon on the couch and college football on the screen 
(even in a loss...).

Date night.

Making a dent in a pint.




08 September 2018

248/365

We set out, cards in hand, to give out invitations. We're beginning an outreach specifically for girls in our neighborhood, those from 12 to 18 years old. Our hope is to gather weekly and share an activity and some purposeful conversation and some food and some fun and maybe even some transparency, one with another. It's a new thing.

It takes only a few steps to remember that we are not in American suburbia. We comment cheerfully that the street is finally dry. After all, just a week or so ago, green waters lapped the sidewalks, the deep where two streets intersect. A product of bad drainage and a pump project gone bad, the pond had been a fixture since the beginning of the year. Now finally, all that remained is dusty dry mud tracks, petrified dune bumpers on the edges of the road.

As we pass by, my landlord calls us over cheerfully. Chickens peck around his driveway and a couple of dogs and cats lounge lazy in the heat. His birthday is coming up and preparations for the annual celebration have begun. His family is slaughtering a pig to be roasted, and he invites us up the driveway to see. We congratulate him on another year, but cheerfully decline a closer look at tomorrow's dinner.

We turn the corner and see flashing lights at the end of the street, probably an ambulance. We're not the only ones wondering what is happening- lots of neighbors have come out to gaze and guess. We talk to some boys we haven't seen in a while, and exchange the traditional handshake fist bump, reminding them of our weekly community center activities. We greet the parents of one of our girls and leave an invitation. We see her eyes in her dad and her smile on her mom and her face in miniature in her as her little sister peeks up at us.

We go to a corner store, the workplace of a mom of one of our girls. The store owner and my teammate exchange compliments on each other's clothing and we laugh. We learn our girl has moved, and backtrack in search of her. We find her at home a couple of blocks away, in a house without glass in the windows, one some might think abandoned. She greets us with a smile and hurries to change her clothes and put on shoes and join our merry band. We cross the street to meet a neighbor and extend an invitation to two more girls.

The search continues. We walk down streets and look for girls along the way. We give invitations to two girls on their way out of the house. We step into a nearby papelería, lotería cards and wrapping paper hanging from the walls. We crowd through the doorway and lean across a glass-topped case, and leave another invitation with the mom behind the counter.  

We stop at the house of another friend, and find her grandma sitting out front. A family member opens the gate for us and extends a hand and a hello. We greet grandma with a handshake and a kiss on the cheek and ask about her grandkids. She promises to give our invitation to her teen.

We walk towards our young friend's house again. "I like going with you all," she tells us. "Everyone smiles and is nice to you." We laugh, because really it is true. We have no concerns as we walk up and down our streets amongst our neighbors. And yet, I also sigh, because I know that if she weren't with us, the situation would be much different. We have seen how some men look at these girls. All of our kids know stories about violence. We have heard from them threats of robbery and of kidnapping.

We know that our God has been here from the beginning of time, and He is yet bringing light into darkness in this very place.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.    It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? (Isaiah 43:19)
Yes, yes we do.

05 September 2018

247/365

Now that September has arrived, seemingly everyone in the world appears to be back to school. The weather sure doesn't feel anything close to fall in these parts- "and on Wednesday we'll dip down into the 90's..." said a local weather guy early in the week. (WHAT?! "DIP" into the 90's?!) Nonetheless, here with our Aquiles neighborhood kids, we are working our way back to the usual school week schedule.

On Monday and Tuesday afternoon, almost as if we set an alarm, we hear the dogs start to bark and we know the kids have arrived. We open the gate and they pull out the games. You might see UNO or dominoes. Big boys play ping pong. The very youngest build towers and obstacle courses with giant Jenga blocks and then leap and knock them over with a loud crash that startles the rest of us every time. Have no doubt, we play with a bunch of cheaters- very cute little schemers. But we sit around the table together and talk and joke and try to keep order. Little by little, clue by clue, we learn more about these kids and share more about ourselves and the God we love.

Divided between older and younger, the kids rotate between art class and Bible class and games. Usually just when we think we have figured out what works, it probably won't. This week in art, we "painted" with water on bleeding tissue paper. That went well. Well, except for the one kid who pulled his cup away while I poured water into it and suddenly his paper was soaked before he even picked up the brush.. I should have known better. The next day, we used the now colored paper for the background of a simple drawing. Let's call that, simply, a FAIL. These kids need direction, instructions and guidance. Left to their own, it never seems to go well. Perhaps that extends to life as well as art...

We purpose for these kids to hear the good news of the Gospel every week- of the great demand of the law and of the infinite grace of Christ. Our pastor and teammate shares a short message. They play games to reinforce the lesson. Slowly so slowly, these truths begin to settle.

We will fine-tune the time together, once again and probably yet again. As the weeks pass by, we will keep what works, drop what doesn't, hopefully while adapting and growing and changing for the better along the way. Our prayer is that our center is a safe place, a place to learn and to create, a place where Jesus is honored and our God is glorified.
Would you pray alongside of us as we begin again this fall?




246/365

"Greetings from Reynosa. I am doing administrative work today and notice that this email address..."
And such started many notes on this day, as I try to reconcile and consolidate several address lists for our missions giving and communications. Through the wonder of technology, we can see who opens our mail, and who doesn't. This sort of business can be a cumbersome work for a natural introvert, an official Enneagram 9, who relies on the goodness and giving of others for the majority of our income. I mean, maybe you really don't want to read our updates and that's totally ok. I understand, really I do. Maybe you just changed your email and we didn't know. Or maybe you have multiple email addresses and our mail isn't going to one you read most often. Or maybe...

I am left believing that this new world of social media and instant communication can prove itself both a blessing and a curse. Surely missionaries in not so many years past wished, "If only I could send out one letter to everyone...," "If only I could see who was really receiving our mail..." Now we can. And not only that! I adore instant access to photos of faraway friends and family whom I would otherwise rarely see at all. The images and updates close the distance. Sometimes I forget how long it's been since I've had an actual conversation with that person because I often "see" them, or at least, their posts and their photos. But then I'll get a real letter, a newsy epistle written exclusively for my eyes, that shares a bit of a dear one's heart, and I remember. Even the best missive cannot substitute for sitting together, face to face.

I live on the edge of two frontiers and crossing from one country to another can be a daily exercise, simple and normal. Yet, sometimes an ordinary update will remind me that I am indeed so far away. Kids who were everyday playmates of my own get married and have their own kids and celebrations go on with out us, as they should. I accidentally discover that I was "unfriended" by someone and I consider why that stings. I often struggle to make small talk with friends stateside. Just a few miles apart, and yet everyday life can look so different from my side of the 'hood. Jesus' command to "follow me" demands and requires so very much more than what we know from being a follower on social media these days.

Only minutes after sending out the first inquiry, I receive a response, "Your newsletters would be welcomed," the kind folks write.  And then another similar response quickly follows. Certainly, I savor the nearly instant gratification, at least for a moment. Which is good, because those two replies would be it. And so, it's back to "Greetings from Reynosa..."

13 June 2018

161/365

The sojourners finished their sometimes long, often wandering, and nearly always dangerous journeys to the United States, only to wait. Some waited nearly two weeks, just yards from the door, seeking asylum in the United States. Once inside, they would be processed, and then most likely held in an immigration detention center, waiting on their application.

Until Sunday.

On Sunday, the people were gone. They left behind coolers and blankets and cushions, probably never theirs to begin with. A cleaning lady came behind, sweeping the walk and shining the trash cans. She told us that all of the items would be removed by the next day.
And when I looked over while crossing the bridge on Monday, nothing remained.

On Monday, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that those claiming to be victims of domestic or gang violence would no longer qualify for asylum status. Most likely those who were waiting and allowed in on Sunday were soon to be flat out denied.


And on Tuesday, Mary Giovagnoli, Executive Director of the Refugee Council USA, comments, “The right to seek asylum in the United States is enshrined in our law and is an international obligation. Since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, U.S. courts have recognized that persecution may occur for many reasons, not all of which fit into a neatly defined category, and that individuals can be persecuted when the government fails to protect particular groups of people. Many of the most compelling claims arising from Central America today involve the failure of the state to protect victims of domestic or gang violence.  Rather than address the complex nature of these claims, Attorney General Sessions has chosen to dismiss them out of hand, arguing that there is virtually no situation in which the victim of domestic violence or gang violence could make a plausible case for asylum."


But back on Sunday, we knew that people from all over the world, from Central America and beyond, had been waiting outside for a while. We know that it is hot and dust on the border in June. We just wanted to show some kindness to people who traveled a long way, with few comforts, without much immediate promise. We took cut up watermelon over to the bridge, not knowing who we might serve, or if we would even be allowed to serve it. As it turned out, no migrant people waited on the US side of the bridge, for Immigration and Customs officers stood at the exact halfway point, only allowing those with documents to move forward. On this day, the emigrants sat on the Mexican side, waiting on what to do next. 


By mid-afternoon on Sunday, the temperature was hot and the wind blew akin to something like a furnace. We crossed the traffic lanes on the bridge and paid our 4 pesos to cross and started down the sidewalk over the Rio Grande. Just before the border marker, we met a mom and daughter fleeing Honduras. A trio of Eritreans hoped to gain entry to the United States after a more than two year journey.  A man who said he was from Israel also waited. We looked them in the eye and heard a little of their stories and of their hopes. And that was pretty much all we could do, besides offer them a bowl of fresh watermelon. I think we all left sad, and frustrated that our efforts were so small. 


In The Way of the Heart Henri Nouwen writes, "Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering... we ignore our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer." I wish that more people, even and especially US officials, could, would, go to those places where the weak and vulnerable and lonely and broken wait and provide opportunity to those who suffer to tell their stories. 


(Interested in knowing more? "What You Need to Know About Families Separated at the Border" by Matthew Sorens of World Relief; "Attorney General's  Asylum Decision Undermines All People Seeking Protection" by Refugee Council USA; "When Deportation is a Death Sentence," by Sarah Stillman of The New Yorker)

09 June 2018

159/365

We started a new thing this spring- a Bible study for boys' in our neighborhood. It seemed like the logical thing to do when the boys who gathered to go to our mid-week cell group study could no longer fit in our car. So, using the same study on Jonah, we started a new group at our house. Not wanting to miss any aspect of the weekly event, we promised that yes, we would have coffee. And we would feed them. 
Guess what? They came, 6 or more boys each week. 

Who says the Bible is boring? Jonah could easily be a made-for-movie story. A disobedient prophet running from God. A hideaway at the bottom of a ship. A tremendous storm. A desperate crew. A confessing passenger reluctantly thrown into the sea. A dramatic rescue by... a Really Big Fish? A remorseful messenger vomited onto the shore. A reluctant missionary sent to a wicked people. A deeply apologetic and repentant city seeking forgiveness. A defiant prophet pouting against the sovereign God. The book of Jonah provides for a lot of conversation. 

For six weeks one after another, they came to the house, through our front gate, through our back gate, even sliding down the pole from the roof to our porch. One week they came still wet from swimming. We'd bring out the coffee and booklets and pens. We watched a short video commentary on the passage of the week and then we talked about what we learned. We talked about Jonas and about what God was doing in that time and place and people. We talked about running from God. We talked about hopes and fears. We talked about His mercy and justice and grace and steadfast lovingkindness. We talked about Jesus. Of course, it wasn't perfect, but it was a start.

Six weeks later we come to the end of the study, and of course, we must celebrate. We promise the boys that we'll make pizzas the next week. But not at our house- at our community center kitchen so we can use two ovens at once and not heat up the house when it's already 100 degrees outside. A couple days prior, I remind the boys when I see them, and ask them their favorite pizza toppings. Maybe that was a strategic error...

Imagine our surprise when we head to the community center on Friday afternoon to prepare for the group and find a mini-mob of more than a dozen kids that were rarely if ever at the study, all ready for a pizza party. Suddenly our Bible study has grown to include kids we've never met. It now includes a few girls? We laugh. Perhaps there is innocent confusion- because we do have activities including a bible lesson a couple times a week at the community center. Perhaps there is wishful thinking, because after all, there is pizza. We decide to include any boy who attended the study at least twice. I promise the girls we're working on a study for them, too. We turn the others away, this time at least. I wonder how Jesus might multiply pizza dough and pepperoni.

So 13 boys (and one little sister) end up making pies on Friday afternoon. Maybe the next two hours would be best be described as Organized Chaos. Each kid took a lump of dough to a table covered with flour, rolling it flat with a glass soda bottle. We ration out sauce. These Norteños are the original meat-lovers; everyone gets 5 pepperonis and 3 cucharas de salchichas. An adventurous few add mushrooms and black olives. A border pizza might not be complete without jalapeños. They cover their discs with cheese and add some identifying mark to the top and send it to the ovens.

While they wait, Pastor Mario goes over a review of the study, and sure enough, some bit of the previous 6 weeks has stuck. Boys shout out answers back at him. We remind them of starting again next week. We pray for the food, thanking our God for His goodness and provision to all of us. He is "gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster." (Jonah 4:2)
Then, we eat pizza.


08 June 2018

157/365

"Here comes the sun..."

I walk out of my little house, already sweaty in just the getting ready, already sweaty before stepping outside. The morning sun, though only a couple hours after beginning it's rise, already shines hot and bright, moving slowly and steady overhead. In the gleam of daylight, I see the dust covering the tile floor and tables on our front porch, covering the leaves of the flowers I'm trying to grow, covering the street in front of the house. The morning school day has just begun for my neighbors. Our deaf youth sit and do their lessons outside at the tables. At least the breeze provides a distraction from the heat.

I exit the black iron gate that guards my house and walk down the concrete street, kicking pebbles, along the way. Brilliant pink bouganvilla flowers color a puddle, limp tissue paper blooms shining bright in the water's reflection. A kitten lays in the shadow of a bench. From down the street, a dog watches me, unwilling to move except for the wag of his tail. A string of deflated balloons hangs from a neighbor's fence, sagging dejected after too much party the previous night.

I turn the corner and walk two blocks, sharing a "Buenos días" with those I pass. Birds crow and chirp in trees overhead. Somewhere nearby a rooster crows, again. A background chorus of cicadas leaves ears ringing with a their high whine song. A couple of ladies sit in the shade of the door of their corner store and fan themselves. I wave, and the little boy without a shirt, playing at their feet, rewards me with a smile.

I cross the pavement to my destination, the gordita stand open from sun up to whenever she runs out. I waited too long earlier in the week and promised to return, but next time, earlier in the day. The owner, chef and plate washer, a one woman operation start to finish, is the wife of a neighborhood tire guy, and sure enough, while he works on a car next door, the driver takes time to eat. I approach the open air stand, oilcloth with bright flowers on a blue background covering the counter. I take a seat on a tall red stool. The menu is written on posterboard, but really, it changes from day to day, moment to moment, depending on cook's choice and what others have eaten before you arrive.

A gordita de picadillo and a refresco set me back 20 pesos, about a dollar according to the official exchange rate this morning. For a dollar I get a pocket of masa pressed flat, cooked hot on a griddle, and filled with a chopped potato and ground beef filling in a spicy tomato sauce. It drips greasy red down my fingers, and leaves a just right amount of pico in my mouth. Between the sun and the heat of the food, I resist the temptation to press the cold Coke glass dripping with condensation against my cheek. While I eat, a taxi driver stops for his morning break. Two young moms watch their toddlers tease and chase each other around the car. And our cocinera continues to slap down balls of masa, rolled flat and flipped when toasted spotted brown.

I finish, fully content with my morning snack, and head to work, the to-do list full, tasks waiting, both known and still to be learned. The sun continues to make it's way above in the sky overhead. As the Beatles long ago crooned, "And I say, it's all right..."

(the photo is of sun mosaic collages created by our students in art class the previous evening)