My days of sojourning solo are numbered.

It’s official and I’ve been able to share the news here in the culturally appropriate ways. So now it’s with joy that I can announce from this virtual rooftop my engagement to Dean Baldwin!

Dean’s and my friendship began almost 7 years ago now. We met one November morning in Aliquippa, PA at the Uncommon Grounds Café, a Christian non-profit. I had accidentally stumbled onto a volunteer training session there that Dean was helping to run. He was on staff there at the time. We got to know each other in the work at the café and have been friends since, though each of our paths has been quite meandering since leaving Aliquippa.

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Dean and I, circa 2012

About halfway through my first term, Dean started writing me letters every week. He also started praying that God would provide me with a husband – and, if he was to be that man, that God would make him into that man. Dean eventually came to West Africa to visit me. Thus began many months of talking, praying, seeking counsel, and trying to discern how God was leading us.

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In West Africa

It’s nice to finally be on the other side of that long discernment process! Dean and I are now convinced that God is in fact calling us to become one and to serve Him in mission together. When Dean asked me to marry him in June before I returned to West Africa, I was eager to accept his proposal. (I obviously didn’t need to use any of those culturally-appropriate Wolof refusals to marriage proposals that I’d spent my first term mastering!)

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All I can do is marvel as I look back on how God has worked and guided us towards Him and towards each other. We are in for a new adventure, a new chapter of this sojourn. The unknowns are not lacking, but I’m excited to see how God continues to guide us, together!

While back in the US over the past year, I had many opportunities to share with churches and friends what I’m learning in West Africa.

I often referenced the highly multicultural team that I was on for the Wolof Research Project, and all the challenges and opportunities for growth that it gave me. Our three-person team represented three different home countries, three different cultures, three different mother tongues. I shared how intensely difficult it was at times, because of how little we had in common (expectations of leadership, views of gender, communication styles, ways of resolving disagreement). And I shared how deeply fulfilling it was, too, as we experienced God building His Kingdom in our very midst each time we chose to stay committed to one another and to the task given us, sometimes for no other reason than we knew God was asking us to do so.

If I’m honest, though, I talk about how deeply fulfilling it was to be on a multicultural team, partly in order to remind myself of that fact. To convince myself that it’s true. To prepare myself to keep pursuing work on multi-cultural teams. If I’m honest, sometimes I have trouble believing that it’s truly worth it.

The Wolof Research Project is over, for all intents and purposes. Now, decisions are being made as to starting a new translation project. One of my teammates from the project is carrying on the work into its next phase. Another teammate is no longer with SIL, so I won’t work with the same exact team again.

But I’m involved with other multicultural teams, and I know my work overseas will always be tied to that. I have to admit, as I reflect on my role in the Wolof Research Project team, that God has gifted me in – and seems to want to keep growing me in – multicultural teamwork. At the same time, as I reflect on the difficulties and times of conflict during the Wolof Research Project, a part of me cringes at the thought of returning to that.

Sometimes I need reminders of why multicultural teamwork is worth the conflict it inevitably involves. Most recently the reminder has come from the book Cross-cultural Conflict by Duane Elmer. I am being reminded that people from different cultures coming together and choosing to be one is at the very heart of the gospel. And when we as Christians choose to do the hard work of facilitating this multicultural unity among Christ’s followers, we are following in the footsteps of our Savior. Multicultural teamwork is worth it because it’s close to Christ’s heart.

Elmer explains that, in much of the world, people prefer to resolve conflicts in indirect methods. Relying on a mediator is one such indirect strategy. He writes,

“Mediation takes place, obviously, between two people or two parties. The intended outcome is not simply for mutual tolerance, physical coexistence or a superficial feeling good about each other. It goes deeper. … The mediator serves not simply to reconcile, interpret and negotiate but, much more positively, to integrate two parties. … The Bible employs extensive language to highlight similar values: ‘body,’ ‘church,’ ‘unity,’ ‘oneness’ and ‘fellowship.’ One thing is certain: conflict-resolution skills are important for the church everywhere.” (p. 75-76)

I have experienced a small taste of what difficult work this is. I aspire to continue in it and get better at it, despite the challenges. It helps to be inspired by the Great Mediator:

“The enmity between God and humans could be healed and unity restored only through a mediator—an indirect method. Only one person was qualified to mediate this cosmic conflict, Jesus Christ. ‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men.’ (I Tim 2:5-6)” (p. 78)

After a little over a year away, I’ve made it back to West Africa.

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I had forgotten how sweaty and dusty life here is! The country quickly reminded me.

On the whole, my re-entry has been smooth. The habits and instincts that I haven’t used in the US have come right back, apart from a couple manageable hiccups. The brain and memory are incredible things! I’ll continue to settle in over the coming weeks.

I’ve also mostly slipped right back into my Wolof — the language I spent most of my first term learning. It is funny, though, which words aren’t there when I need them in conversation. The brain and memory are funny things. Considering how little Wolof I heard or spoke back in the US, though, it’s amazing the number of words and phrases that are right on my tongue, despite having not said or thought them in over a year.

And over the weekend, I had my first Sunday of worshiping back at my local church here. How I’ve missed those sounds! The drums, the clapping, the singing in multiple languages (some of which I don’t understand)… I had to capture a piece and share it: click here and use the password sicapmbao.

More to come from West Africa!

 

I fly back to West Africa in a few days. That means this week I’m doing those tasks that are never finished for a missionary: sorting, storing, packing.

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This time around, I know better what I need to bring and what I can leave. This time around, there are also lots of people to bring gifts for–people that I did not know when I first left and that became my West African family. “Maangi ni di wajja dellusi,” (Wolof for I’m getting ready to come back) I tell them when I’ve called them this past week.

And while I’m still in the US, I’m incredibly grateful for my family and friends here. They are providing me with the space to sort, store, and pack, as well as the much-needed emotional support as I prepare to leave again.

Her face seemed tired yet open as she greeted me in the doorway of her apartment. A toddler peeked around her skirt at me with wide, bright eyes. In that first exchange, I learned that her name is Masoka and her son is named Daudi. Masoka’s face will forever be for me the face of the refugee. Until that morning, I had never known a refugee longer than a couple days.

I and another ESL volunteer had knocked on her family’s door, having seen their apartment number on our list of refugee residents of the apartment complex where we would be holding English classes starting the following week. That morning, we were going door-to-door to meet the refugees and give them flyers with the details. It didn’t take long with Masoka to realize that for the very reasons that she could benefit from an ESL class, she and I could not have any kind of conversation. We had no language in common. We resorted to hand gestures and even then, we quickly hit a wall. At that point, Masoka’s tired, confused face broke into laughter and she grabbed my hand to shake it. I laughed with her and wondered if in her world, even the presence of a smiling face at her door could be significant.

Where are the people who will show up with a smiling face?

Masoka and her family are Congolese refugees who had arrived in the US seven months prior to our first encounter. That meant that when I met them, they no longer had a case worker assigned to them, having surpassed the initial time period when refugees have anyone assigned to them. They had originally been resettled in the north of Dallas where they had gotten connected with a Swahili-speaking church. More recently, due to their large family (six biological children and a niece that live with them) they were relocated to this apartment complex in south Dallas. Masoka was pregnant. This background information on her and her family came in bits and pieces over the months that followed our first encounter.

I met others that first day, a family from Eritrea and another from Syria. What they all had in common was extremely minimal English. Other than their country of origin, it was near impossible to learn much of their stories. Bits and pieces were shared in the little English they knew, amidst strings of languages I don’t understand and much gesturing and frustration, as they tried to communicate with me and as I tried to guess at what they were saying. Bombings and death of family members that they had witnessed in their home country – these things were pantomimed. And I was left trying to respond and express my sorrow for them in inadequate ways. As the English classes began the following week, the individuals that we had met became part of mixed classes – students from Congo, Eritrea, Syria, speaking at least four different languages. As we began to help them learn English, their individual stories receded into the background and remained largely a mystery.

Masoka and her husband and toddler came to ESL class. I was so happy when I first saw them there. For all I knew, my attempts to communicate with her and invite her to class had failed that morning I met her at her door.

It is humbling and frustrating to not be able to communicate with people like Masoka. Other than that presence of a smiling face, I have felt pretty useless to her in the face of all that she has experienced and that she and her family deal with now as they learn to live in the US. When I first met her, I had little concept of what they were dealing with. Then one day after class, I noticed her trying to say something to the apartment manager at the leasing office, next door to where we held classes. Masoka of course didn’t have the English words to communicate, and the manager had no idea what she was trying to say. After watching them struggle for a while, I jumped in and tried to help, to no avail. We got the sense there was a problem, but we could not figure out what it was. Finally, I offered to go back with her to her apartment so she could show me what the problem was. Once back at her apartment, she showed me that there was a problem with the key and lock. It was a simple matter to fix and was mostly due to the fact she wasn’t used to that kind of door.

As I thought about it later, I realized that beyond a smiling face, it is time that they need. It takes much more time and patience to communicate when you don’t have a language in common. When there’s a problem, it involves going with them and their showing you if they don’t know the English words to simply tell you. When it’s not something concrete that they are trying to tell you, it involves sitting with them and listening, patiently gathering the bits of information that you can, sometimes waiting until there are family members around with a bit more English.

Where are the people who have time?

Then one day, Masoka didn’t come to class. Her husband told us a few days later that their baby had been born, a girl named Neema (Swahili for “grace,” as I’d later learn). The other volunteers and I shared in their joy, visiting them and bringing them gifts and supplies donated by our respective churches. Masoka and her family were so appreciative.

As I visited them, I began to sense that baby supplies were a drop in the bucket of what they were facing now with a newborn in a strange country. Masoka had walked with a limp before the birth, and she was expressing pain in her legs. She had difficulty coming down the stairs. Her husband was expressing concern for her. She was also motioning that she was having issues nursing. Was she able to get to a doctor? What hospital would see her? Would she and her husband know when to take their baby for regular check-ups? How would they pay for formula? How would the baby get registered and added to the family’s benefits plan? I was clueless as to how these things work in my own country. The family had long ago surpassed the time period when they have a case worker who checks on them in such matters. Masoka was obviously an experienced mother. I knew it was their family’s strength and resilience that had gotten them this far. On one hand, they didn’t need me, and it was just as well because I felt so useless. On the other hand, during my visits with them I was trying to show them friendship and care. I began to feel a responsibility to them, as a friend, to do whatever it was that I could, even if it was just sitting with them.

Where are the people who will go sit with those who need a friend?

Over the course of the weeks following Neema’s birth, her parents and I discovered (often together) how to navigate some of those things they were facing. I connected them to Swahili-speakers, to a woman who knows about lactation, to the state hotline to call to add a family member to a benefits plan. And the days I couldn’t do anything for them, I’d simply sit and pray with them. It has been a humbling and eye-opening experience.

The other day, I was running near a lake when, for some strange reason, it felt like I was back in West Africa. It was something in the warm breeze and the sound of the water and the sun hot on my face that made me close my eyes for a second and think, “Wait, am I in Dallas or somewhere along the coast of West Africa?” And I felt my gut lurch at that thought. “Am I ready to go back?” I wondered.

In less than two months, I’ll be returning to “the field.” My flight is booked, and July 2 I’ll go back to West Africa.

After being in the US for a year-long home assignment, it is with mixed emotions that I prepare to return. It is there that I feel alive in the sense of doing what I was made to do. But it is still here that I feel comfortable. It does not yet feel like I am going “home.” It feels right to go back but not altogether easy.

A year is long enough to settle back into American rhythms and coping mechanisms which I do not have in West Africa. I will have to switch back into that other mode I learned to operate in while in West Africa. I have to trust that I will settle back into those other rhythms and coping mechanisms.

And my fickle, forgetful heart has to trust that God will provide for my every need there as He did when I was there before.

In his book Soul, Self, and Society, Rynkiewich asks the question, “What will it take to be in mission with Postcolonial people?” I have been pondering the thought-provoking list of principles he then shares. Here are those ten principles he offers as a possible answer:

  1. Kenosis. Empty yourself. Do not grasp your own ideology, privilege, or authority. Identify with the other.
  2. Guest. Receive hospitality. You are the guest; the other is the host. Learn what that means in Scripture and in the cultural setting.
  3. Forgiveness. Seek the forgiveness of the other for the privileges you and yours have received from unequal colonial, neocolonial, or globalizing oppression.
  4. Good news. News is good when the recipient thinks it is good. Identify with the poor and oppressed. Discover what good news would mean to them. Speak of God’s great love in Jesus Christ, and follow with practices that are good news.
  5. Reconciliation. Learn where people have been hurt and are hurting. Seek to mediate God’s reconciliation in those situations. We have a message of reconciliation, and we have a ministry of reconciliation.
  6. Justice. Study the structures and behaviors that give rise to injustice, then become an advocate for the poor and oppressed.
  7. Settle down. The poor and the oppressed have had a succession of do-gooders pass through their neighborhood, and most have kept going. Stay in the place that God has sent you, pray for ‘the good of the hood,’ and work for the community.
  8. Relate. The poor have heard ‘good news,’ but there was little good in it. Develop relationships that honor the other.
  9. Submit. Submit yourselves one to the other. The other has a vision, a goal, a plan. Discover what it is and what your place in it can be.
  10. Give. The measure of a religion is not what it does for its own adherents, but what it does for those who are not adherents. Be clear that what you do, you do because of Christ and for the other, and not for yourself. Give yourself.” (p. 97)