New Neighbors: Shyam Rai

My friend, Steve called me one day with an idea. He thought he would like to use his charcoal drawing skills to draw pictures of some of our refugee friends and wondered if I would be willing to write their stories. He imagined a book or an art exhibit. Intrigued, I said I would think about it. Not long after, my videographer friend Andy sent me a message on Facebook. “I want to do something to support refugees. Do you have any ideas?” he wrote. A few days and a couple of conversations later, New Neighbors was born. And my faith in God once again increased. These crazy “coincidences” happen in my life often enough for me to recognize that God is still up to something in this world and that He most often works through people who are willing to love others. I sure do love the people God has sent my way. I would love for you to meet one: Shyam Rai.

“It’s like a dream,” he says. “Sometimes I think about my life in Bhutan and Nepal and my life in America seems like it must be a dream.” Shyam Rai’s life took a difficult turn before he was born. His father died leaving his mom and three year old brother alone to survive. His mom would trade labor for rice or oil. Once a year she would purchase one new set of clothes for Shyam–one outfit to be worn for the year. He did not own a pair of shoes until age 12 after he had quit school to provide for his mom. Once he started carrying oranges to market for a neighbor, he was able to purchase salt and food. Life was hard, but they were happy in the beautiful mountainous area of Bhutan.

Then the king of Bhutan started instituting a series of repressive acts against the ethnic Nepalese people who had been living in South Bhutan for 100 years: citizenships revoked, homes demolished, arrests and torture, and eventually eviction. When Shyam was only 13 years old, his relatives and neighbors began fleeing the country. As his mother wrestled with depression unable to clearly think through options, Shyam led as they left the only country he had ever known.

They arrived in a Nepal refugee camp on May 15, 1992 during a cholera outbreak. People were dying every day from diarrhea and disease. Thousands of people gathered under tents and bamboo huts.

Teenage Shyam began attending school finishing the equivalent of 7th grade before he once again looked for ways to support his mother and now his very young wife. As he was both hard working and industrious, over time he earned the respect of his sub-sector of the refugee camp and was voted in for the volunteer position coordinating the United Nation’s biweekly food distribution and arbitrating disagreements in the camp. Eventually he heard about the opportunity to be placed in another country. After 15 years of sitting in a refugee camp with few resources and no hope for a different future, he saw the possibility for a new life. He paid 25 rupees to the Prime Minister of Nepal to apply.

In January of 2009, his relatives and camp friends gathered around to tearfully say goodbye to Shyam, his mother, his wife and three young children as they boarded a plane to begin their journey to America. Five flights later they landed in Lansing Michigan where their immigration case manager offered them coats before stepping outside into the wintery January landscape.

And everything was different.

The airplane food looked nothing like anything they had ever eaten. He remembers looking at a salad and thinking, “Why are they feeding me the forest?” The children were given a small box of Fruit Loops and started arguing over it because it looked like a very spicy snack food they had eaten in Nepal. Imagine their surprise when it was not spicy at all but sweeter than anything they had ever tried! The first night in their house, they kept waking up hearing the furnace kick on and off. They had never heard such noises and wondered what people were trying to come into their house.

Shyam quickly realized that his greatest need was to learn English. As he thought over his life experience, he considered that Christians were people he had seen care about and help people. Though he was not a Christian, he thought if he could find a church, someone would help him. Through a beautiful working together of several followers of Jesus, Shyam and his family connected with Lansing Central Free Methodist Church and are now members of the Kripa Nepali Free Methodist congregation. Eight years after starting a new life in America, the Shyam Rai family owns their own home and two cars. His brother and sister and their families also now live in Lansing. Though Shyam still feels that his biggest struggle is that he only understands about 50% of the English language, his three children speak fluently and are excelling in school.

After being rejected by his home country and always considered a stranger in his refugee camp country, he entered the U.S. where he is thankful for freedom and equality. He didn’t need a dad or a lot of money to be given a chance. Shyam is now a citizen of the United States of America. It is a dream come true.

Under the Wings

Let me tell you about two conversations I’ve had. One was probably 25 years ago with my mom.

I was trying to make a decision and I asked my mom what she thought. My mom is quite wise and especially during those teenage and college years of my life she was very careful about how she said things to me as I was “a little headstrong” (some things never change!) She told me a story of a friend of hers who had been in a similar situation. And she told me how hard that woman’s life had been based on her choice. She didn’t tell me what to do but she shared wisdom from her longer life experience and a larger view of my life than I had at the time. And I listened to her hard words because I saw her love for me and her desire for me to have the best life I could have.

The second happened just a week ago. I was talking to a friend of mine about his growing up years in Haiti. He said his mom always disciplined him when he did the wrong things and as a child sometimes he felt like he hated her for it. Now as an adult, he looks back on those years and he realizes that his mother gave him a lifelong gift. She taught him about right and wrong. She taught him how to choose the right and avoid the wrong because the wrong brings consequences. She taught him self-control. It served him well when he left home at age 16, started life in a new country and had to figure out what to do on his own. She saw what he didn’t see as a child. That doing right now would train him to do right later. She was looking at the big picture and helping her son to become the best he could be.

One day, Jesus said these beautifully maternal words to the crowd:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

He was at the end of speaking hard words to the crowds around him. This teaching was at the end of three years of ministry Jesus had done in Israel. He had spent so much time healing people, eating with people, performing miracles—sometimes feeding a whole lot of people with a little bit of food. Sounds like some moms I know! He had invested so much, giving his life to serve and love setting an example by the way He lived of how he wanted others to live. He had also spent a lot of time trying to teach the people about the best ways to live. But so many of them did not get it. And in fact the ones who most missed the point were the religious leaders. They thought they had it all figured out. They had made their own rules and regulations and were happily making everyone else’s lives miserable by making everyone follow their ideas. And Jesus had decided to call them out, give them the bigger picture, show them the better way.

But once he had spoken the hard words to them, there is this beautiful picture he paints with his words:

–O Jerusalem, Jerusalem

You know when you hear your name twice it is important— there is passion in this statement.

–you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you

I feel like Jesus is saying, “I keep trying to tell you the best way. I keep sending messages and messengers but you are so stubborn.”

–how often

This is not just a one time sentiment. This is Jesus’ ongoing love for his people–I keep wanting to do this for you.

–I have longed to gather your children together

Again it is like Jesus says, “Come on. Come close. Listen. Let me be near you. Let’s all be near to each other.”

–as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings

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Look at that picture of the goose and her goslings.  The little guy with his head popped up. The one on the right with his eyes closed feeling safe and secure. This is not the first time God has used this imagery in Scripture. In the OT, Moses reminds the people of Israel what God has done for them:

Deuteronomy 32:10b-12

He shielded him and cared for him;
he guarded him as the apple of his eye,
like an eagle that stirs up its nest
and hovers over its young,
that spreads its wings to catch them
and carries them aloft.
The Lord alone led him;
    no foreign god was with him.

David in the Psalms three different times uses this imagery of hiding under God’s wings:

Psalm 91:4

He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

Psalm 17: 6-8

I call on you, my God, for you will answer me;
turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.
Show me the wonders of your great love,
you who save by your right hand
those who take refuge in you from their foes.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings

Psalm 57:1

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
until the disaster has passed.

For those of us who have had good mothers and fathers, we can feel the warmth of arms surrounding us. We know what it is to have someone protecting us, looking out for our best interest. For those of us who have not been able to experience this, something in our soul longs for this protection and care because somewhere inside of us we know that this is how it is supposed to be. Here is where Jesus comes in. He is the perfect parent. All those things that we have or have not experienced but know are the way it ought to be—this is because God created us this way. And he desires to lead us in this way. He wants to gather us under his wings like a mother hen. He wants to protect us by showing us the way that we may walk in it.

The catch? It is the same today as it was 2000 years ago when Jesus was talking to the people – the last phrase of this verse:

–but you were not willing.

Have you ever tried to hug a toddler having a temper tantrum? Have you ever tried to connect with someone who wants nothing to do with you? Have you ever had a crush on someone who didn’t know you existed?

God wants to gather us under his wings. But so often we are angry, self-centered, and unaware of the presence of God. And each day as we self-destruct. As we blindly blaze our own trail. As we blame our moms, our dads, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, children, bosses, coworkers, the neighbor, the current president, the last president, and anyone else we can think of. I think Jesus looks over at us and says, “Oh Joanna, Joanna, how often I have longed to gather you and your people together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

I pray that today and everyday you will choose to let Jesus gather you up. To hide under His wings. To listen to His wise words of instruction and discipline and direction for your best life. It is the very best place to be.

New Neighbors: Tatu

I love a good story. What I have found over the years is that real stories are often the best kind and so many of my friends have powerful real stories. The stories include hardship and hope, loneliness and community. They each display a combination of the lows of humanity and the resilience of persons. And each one has more than a little sense of the grace of God ever present. I would be honored if you watch, listen, share, and consider how you can welcome a new neighbor.

Today’s story tells about a mom of 17: how she raised them and how they raised her.

 

Tatu first became a mother in Burundi, Africa. Two children were born before she and her husband Jean-Pierre fled the country to protect themselves from ethnic divisions and civil war. Leaving behind farmland and everything they owned, they moved to neighboring Congo and started a new life. Not long after moving, Jean-Pierre’s brother lost his wife and could not care for his three small children. This is when Tatu came to be known as the “family mom”. She took in three children under the age of three to add to her two children–while she was pregnant with twins! Along with caring for her children, she would keep watch at the family business by day and once older children were home from school she would continue working at home. Always washing clothes and dishes, and cooking, cooking, cooking. Over time her family grew to12 biological kids and 7 nieces and nephews. She became known not just as the “family mom” but also as the “neighborhood mom”. All the kids would come to her house after school and she took in any kid and fed them like they were her own.

After a time, the ethnic division found its way to Congo and once again forced the family to flee. You see, Jean-Pierre and Tatu are from two different tribes. People would look at Tatu and know she was “not one of them” so they were targeted. Sadly, this persecution continued even once they arrived in the refugee camp. Tatu mostly hid in their small, grass roofed home until she could be accompanied by her older sons to leave the house. One night, they woke to shouts from neighboring homes. Their grass roof had been set on fire! Quickly after that, they were moved to a camp with more ethnic diversity, but Tatu was exhausted by the fight. She wanted to give up. She told her children, “We will die here or we will die in Congo. It does not matter anymore.”

This was when her children raised her up. They all said to her, “It’s OK. People are leaving the refugee camp. We have filled out paperwork. Let’s just wait. We are not going to give up.”

The kids were right. Very quickly, the family’s paperwork was approved and they were off for their 5 flights to the United States. On their last flight from Chicago to Michigan they started to get more nervous as they looked down from the airplane and could only see the endless water of Lake Michigan. Where was this new land?

They were quite hungry the first couple of days as the pasteurized milk did not taste the same and the chicken did not look or taste anything like the chicken they ate in Congo. They were thrilled when one of the immigration caseworkers who was also from Africa finally showed them where to buy supplies to cook food more like what they were accustomed to.

Though it was terrifying at the time, the family now laughs when they recall their first 4th of July in America. As the fireworks began, they thought for sure bombs were falling and everyone ran to hide in the closet and under the beds. Just a few months later, the first winter was brutal, so unlike the heat of Central Africa. She had never experienced such cold and spent most days with several layers on at all times. With a smile Tatu explains, “Though much is different in the United States, now I can sleep every night in peace. Now I know I will be OK.”

9 years after moving to the U.S., Tatu once again lives in a beautiful home owned by her family. She has adjusted to the freezing winters by purchasing a floor length down coat. Tatu, Jean-Pierre and their adult children are working and the younger ones are in school. She has even added another name to her titles: Grandma.

What words do her children use to describe her?

Caring.

Always there.

Loving.

Confident.

Always makes me shower before bed.

Passionate.

Hard-working.

Brave.

 

Tatu.

Live Good.

I took a long walk in the rain yesterday. This is not something I usually do, but my thoughts were a jumble and the weather matched my mood. News of an unexpected death weighed heavy on my soul. I chose that word on purpose: soul. Somewhere deep inside of me I knew that with this man gone, the earth had shifted under my feet.

A few months ago, I wrote down these words from Victor Hugo knowing eventually they would make their way into my writing. I found their place today.

Now, for us, in history where goodness is the pearl of great price, he who has been good stands almost above him who has been great. (Les Miserables, p. 836)

I think this is it. My friend, Brad Lockwood, was good in such a way that he stands above great. For two straight days now, I have returned to Facebook over and over reading the tributes from dozens of people shocked by his passing but unable to just sit in their sadness. They felt compelled to say something about this man. And all the stories are the same, different details, but the same. Why? Because Brad was a man whose actions matched his words regardless of who he was with and he was consistent year after year in his place in the world. That did not win him any of the world’s greatness awards, but it made him a really, really good man.

He played many roles: husband, father, lawyer, lead worshipper, pastor, Teens For Christ choir director. Some people change who they are to fit the role. Brad changed the role to fit who he was. Everyone who has met Brad can tell you he was funny, smart, generous, grace-giving, and a lover of people. He was loyal to a fault–loyal to the Jesus he loved and loyal to the better selves of each person he knew.

There is a tendency in times like these to paint a beloved person as perfect. Brad was not perfect. I think he, greater than anyone, knew his flaws. This is why he loved Jesus as much as he did. He daily drank in the inexplicable grace poured out on the people of God. Full of mercy, he then carelessly flung it out on those around him. And the recipients received his hugs, his laughter, his words of truth, his crazy connection ability and loved him for it. A whole bunch of people also loved Jesus for it as well.

The earth shifts when the good ones move to the better place. I want to say that worn out thing about a hole being left that no one else can fill, but it can’t be true. On my walk in the rain, I saw a mother goose and her six goslings. The first babies I have seen this spring. New life wobbling past me as I contemplated death. That was when the earth shifted. A life well lived lives on in the new lives. It is my turn. It is our turn. We don’t need to be great because we can be good.  We can all be good, by the grace of God, in our places. We can give hugs. We can bring laughter. We can speak truth. We can connect with those around us. We can sit with Jesus each day filling up on grace and pouring it out around us. We can be who God made us to be and bring ourselves to every role we play.

Brad lived the good life. It is hard to let the good ones go. So let’s not let him go. Live good.

The Indescribable Something

I tend to devour information, tearing through it like a starving tiger. Occasionally, I stumble upon someone who interrupts my gobbling with words or ideas that stop me mid-chew. The best books, movies, conversations push me beyond the book, movie, or conversation. They make me pause and consider more. They feed my imagination helping me to see what could be, what might change, what ought to happen. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables did that for me. It is curious to me that this was still possible even though Les Miserables had been translated from French to English. The turn of the phrase, the word-pictures, the ideas still so engaging as to cause me to go back and re-read particular sentences and paragraphs. I will save my thoughts on the larger story Hugo tells for another writing on another day. This day, I will attempt to weave some quotes from the story into the thoughts they caused me to think.

Nature has its own magical power in Hugo’s world. He gives it both human and supernatural powers:

Nothing is so beautiful as greenery washed by the rain and wiped by the sunbeam; it is warm freshness.

It is a place where the characters find meaning, peace, and solace:

Spring is a provisional paradise; sunshine helps to make man patient. 

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I’ve lived that paradise finding patience in the sun. How often I have walked down my neighborhood path feeling stirred up inside, unsettled, churning and been struck with the sun coming through the trees at just the right angle. It is like I begin breathing once again. Breathing is life. Life is patience. These are the moments I want to relive again and again. Staying in the place of life and breath and the overwhelming sense that all will be right with the world as it is right now in this moment. Then Hugo speaks again so beautifully:

There are people who ask nothing more–living beings who, having the blue sky, say, “That’s enough!”…These thinkers forget to love…He who does not weep does not see.

This, my friends, is the heart of the matter. To see the beauty without seeing the brokenness is blindness. This world we live in is filled to the brim with beauty: giant Sequoias, snow topped mountains, spring green leaves. It is also filled with earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. And there is beauty beyond the inanimate world, the beauty of human beings. Each of us is so breathtakingly beautiful. Shy smiles in toddlers as they color a picture and hand it to you. Unselfish sharing of handfuls of food. A hug at just the right time. Parents who give up everything to provide for their children. Strangers who lay down their lives that others might live. The light in the eyes of those who feel welcomed.

Those same human beings harbor brokenness as well. The same shy toddler grabs a toy from her younger sibling. A rich man overindulges while millions starve. Affection is withheld out of anger. Parents give food right alongside words of shaming. Strangers label one another and spew words of hatred toward those who are different–sometimes the same stranger who that morning has donated a check to their favorite charity. And over and over again we welcome friends while overlooking strangers.

I see the light. I see it every single day. Sadly, I also see the darkness. More often than I want, I am a carrier of that darkness. This is why I need grace, places of grace, and people of grace. I have been to places where Hugo describes:

The indescribable something from which grace springs is there…

They are the places where I meet with the Creator and where His Spirit breathes new life into me. I have also met people from whom grace springs, usually unexpectedly. Another translation of these words says, “exhales grace.” We are here, all of us broken people, and we live alongside one another much like the rows of trees and the bunches of flowers. The darkness becomes light when we find ways to love one another. Because of our darkness, that loving usually requires grace. It may begin in weeping, but we do not have to stay there. Let’s not waste the weeping. Let’s let it be the water for new life. Let’s inhale the beauty, the grace, and choose love. For once again, the words of Victor Hugo speak:

So, love each other. If people did not love one another, I really don’t see what use there would be in having any spring.

All the beauty is tied together. Love and life. Inhaling and exhaling. Weeping and rejoicing. Drawing apart and pulling close. Let’s drink in the sunshine letting it build patience and use that patience to be love to one another.

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Exhale Grace

Back in my young teen years, one of my younger sisters received a Strawberry Shortcake doll as a gift. This baby doll’s claim to fame was that she blew a kiss. The perfumed smell of that kiss matched the doll’s name: Apricot. Something about that Apricot doll’s blown kisses were just right for me. I was clearly too old for playing dolls, but whenever I saw it lying around I’d quick give her belly a poke and breathe in the sweet aroma. Years after we had all grown beyond playing with dolls, I recall finding Apricot in the dark, sometimes musty basement. I would make a beeline to her pressing the tummy once again filling the air with apricot delight.

One of the requirements of life is breath. Without conscious thought, our bodies breathe in and out somewhere between 12 and 20 times per minute. Over the course of a day, that adds up to 17,000-30,000 breaths per day — or more!* That is while we are resting. Start moving and we breathe in and out at an even faster rate.

Inhale. Exhale. Taking air in. Letting air out. Sweet smells.

In the Bible, Paul (the writer of many of the books in the New Testament) uses this imagery to describe what the followers of Jesus are like. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance of the knowledge of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14-15 The Message). Clearly, we don’t wear an actual perfume handed out at church once we decide to follow Jesus. So what aroma is it that we exude?

I’ve been reading through Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for several weeks now and I stumbled across this powerful two word phrase. He described an open field one of the characters regularly visited as a place which exhaled grace. Exhaled grace. I have been turning that phrase over in my mind since then. As I consider Paul’s description of a Jesus follower giving off a beautiful aroma, I wonder if that aroma might be grace.

Smells assail my nose daily. Sharp smells of opinions, anger, and self-righteousness. Cold and musty smells of people walling themselves up after too many years of hurt. Undefinable smells of apathy, escape, and avoidance. Sometimes I get so used to those smells I hardly notice them. They have become part of the atmosphere…until I stumble across an exquisite fragrance.

I see a father reach for a daughter’s hand as they walk a few short steps into the corner store.

I watch a child show another child how the watercolor paint works.

I observe a man listen patiently to the same story for the fourth time that morning.

I see a frustrated friend slow down and work a process when she’d rather barge ahead.

I listen to a college student quietly redirect a kindergartner to try again rather than doing it for him.

And every time I smell it: exhaled grace.

It becomes a way I want to be. As natural as breathing. I want to exhale grace 12 – 20 times a minute, 30,000 times a day. So I get up in the morning and inhale grace. I read of Jesus in Matthew. I breathe in his words of life. I breathe in his loving actions to the beggar, the leper, and the blind. I breathe deeply as he speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well. I breathe in his embrace of the children. All that morning inhaling of the grace of Jesus fills me up to exhale grace the rest of the day.

And in those moments when the sharp, cold, stale air surrounds me, I stop and turn my soul back to the apricot aroma of Jesus. I inhale Jesus deeply and prayerfully and find the strength once again to exhale grace.

This type of inhaling and exhaling does not come as naturally as the air in and out of my lungs. It does, however, bring life. My soul begins to live in this breathing in and out of grace. No one lives on the inhaling alone. We need the inhale and the exhale. To keep our souls alive, we also need to take in the matchless grace of God and send out that grace to friends and neighbors. Jesus even said something about giving it out to enemies and those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48).

Will you join me in this new way of breathing? We surely will not get it right all the time but sometimes just one whiff of an exquisite fragrance lifts our heads.

Inhale grace. Exhale grace. Repeat.

karyl jada beach

 

*Check out http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/how-many-breaths-do-you-take-each-day/ where I found these stats and for more info on breathing.