Chinese – American?

There is definitely some sort of internal pride, an ego boost that you get as a foreigner when you’re in a country where you can more or less successfully navigate the language barrier. Of course no matter how fluent you are, there are always frustrating and/or awkward moments. But still, it should be a good feeling to know enough of a language to get around. I experienced that in Mexico for sure when I was like, yeah I’m not from here but I can speak your language (more or less haha). In China lots of my American classmates get surprised gasps, gaping mouths or wide-eyed looks when they fluently order their 鸡蛋拉面 or barter at the weekend markets.

Somewhere deeply rooted in my ego is this selfishness and envy that has really become apparent lately. See, I’ve been working just as hard at learning the language as my classmates but I never get those awestruck stares or compliments or special attention when I order food or hop in a cab. With confusion and curiosity at best I get asked “Where are you from?” and at worst I get scoffed at with disdain and completely ignored because why can’t I speak clearly enough or push through enough people to get service? I look just like everyone else but I don’t act like everyone else and I certainly can’t speak like everyone else. That is so weird to many people here.

Moments like these continually and to a somewhat concerning degree frustrate me. On one hand, it’s refreshing to blend in with the crowds and avoid stares or “hellos” on the street. I can go where I want and do what I want with generally little attention or disturbance. On the other hand, people generally have no tolerance or patience when I stumble over words trying to buy something, when I pronounce a word wrong or make a mistake ordering food. People commonly ask if I’m Korean which is tempting to reply “yes” to in order to spare trying to explain myself in Chinese. I still haven’t figured out a good way to really get across that I was born in China but adopted as a baby so am now fully American. It’s different than 美籍华人 (Chinese American) because when I say that I always get asked where in China my family is from. Sometimes I just say “Jiangxi” and move on with my day.

It’s okay and it’s daily a completely grounding and humbling experience to be this misunderstood. It’s also very frustrating and draining. It makes me reflect on that pridefulness and selfishness inside me that says “I want to be praised for knowing the Chinese that I do” or “I want to be given the lenience, patience, attention and respect that other Americans are given.” This is not to say that I haven’t met Chinese people who treat me with kindness and respect, because I most definitely have. And I am not at all saying that other foreigners have it easy in China because they certainly do not. However, difficulties in the way they may be perceived are very different than those I experience even though our cultural background may actually be very similar.

I remind myself every day who I am and what is important in life. And that it’s definitely not me and my self-image. It’s hard to be away from those who love you and understand you. But it’s also times like this where you can really discover what parts of your identity you may cling to that aren’t that important. Like how you are perceived by random people. Sometimes we spend so much of our lives wondering where we fit in or how we want to look to the world that we neglect a lot of more important things going on around us. Like in China, there are so many people who are invisible and neglected in society, by their own people, in a much harsher and crueler way than I am or ever will be. For example, migrant workers, who move to cities for work but are rejected by employers or landlords as they seek jobs and apartments, because of their hukou and social and economic status.

As I’m writing this, I think I’m speaking to myself more than anyone else. But if you also find yourself in a season where you feel misunderstood and underappreciated or frustrated with the way others perceive you, think about some of these reflections! Know your value and worth and look past it to see what other things you may be unintentionally blinding yourself to as you spend your time thinking about yourself.

The Bible and 中文

I have been thinking a lot lately about one of my classes here in Kunming, a one on one class where my classmates and I each chose a topic of our own interest and then were assigned to a teacher with interest or expertise in that area. For the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring the history of Christianity in China, with a specific focus on Yunnan. It’s complex enough in English so reading articles and historical narratives in Chinese has been exceedingly difficult.

However, it’s just one of the many blessings I’ve been granted here in Kunming, to have a teacher who is a follower of Christ himself and to be learning in Chinese not only about the history of Christianity in China but also about the church in Kunming today. The last lesson we covered together was about the connection between Chinese culture and Christianity, specifically the Chinese language. I want to share some reflections on what I learned.

There are actually certain Chinese characters that have biblical significance to their composition. For example, we talked about the traditional Chinese character 義 which means “righteous” or “just”. In John, Jesus is referred to as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Or sometimes we say the lamb who covered our sins. In Chinese, “lamb” is 羔羊, specifically that last part 羊 refers to the animal. So if you look back at the character for righteous, you’ll notice there is a 羊 on top and a 我 on the bottom, which is the character for “I” or “me”. So to pick that character 義 apart, there is a the character for lamb over top of the character for me. Or more symbolically, the ultimate meaning of righteousness or justification is Jesus, the lamb of God, covering the sins of the world and rendering us righteous before him with his blood shed for us on the cross. It’s an extremely significant, beautiful visual with its meaning condensed for posterity into that tiny, meticulous Chinese character.

I’ll give a couple more cool examples. There’s the character 婪 meaning covetous, avaricious or even manipulative. On the top you can see two side by side 木 characters, each one meaning “tree”. Then on the bottom is the character 女 or “woman”. So, according to my teacher at least, each one of those tree (木) characters refers to the trees in Genesis 2 in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And then that bottom character 女 or “woman” refers to Eve, who alongside Adam, ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, sinning and disobeying God. Now, embedded forever in the Chinese language is that biblical story of manipulation and sin.

It may seem a little crazy that Chinese characters have biblical symbolism but it’s not improbable because Christianity had entered China back in the Ming Dynasty (started in 1300s) and even earlier in different forms that we may not consider true Christianity. At this time, the language was being developed and adapted and has continued to be up to present time (as most languages are).

One more example that really struck me, although it’s a little different. The Chinese word for the kingdom of heaven is 天国, 天 meaning “sky” and 国 meaning “nation, state, country”, etc. You see that character 国 in 国家 or 国花, both related to “country” or “national, of the state”.

I don’t know if this was intentional or not but I think it’s remarkable that within that word for heaven is the character for “nation” or “state”. Countries are 国家,America is 美国,China is 中国,etc. Every single country has that 国 character in its name. But it’s also in the word for the kingdom of heaven, 天国.

So if you look at this word with the same analytical lens that I did the other two, I think it speaks volumes to the role of our present world, of this compilation of nation states (国家’s), full of thousands of cultures, languages, people groups, littered by wars, disease, terror, strife, in God’s plan for eternity, His plan for the kingdom of heaven. Revelation 21 talks about a new heaven and new earth; it says God’s dwelling place is now among the people and that He is making everything new. This earth that we all inhabit, these nations we stand behind and belong to, are part of God’s eternal mission to renew the heavens and earth.

This Chinese word for heaven which very serendipitously includes the character for nation or country, can serve as a reminder to Christians around the world that we are stewards of this earth and that in the here and now, even in our world of warring, greedy nation states, there is much hope. As we live out our daily lives, in the people we meet, the way we treat our planet, and the way we view and interact with other people and nations, as Christians we should constantly seek to see things through a lens of eternal significance and ask God to continually remind us of His plan for the kingdom of heaven and the renewal of earth.

Change.

Since I’m not a student in Shanghai anymore, I’ll switch back to my old blog. A lot has changed in the past two weeks. I left the massive, bustling city of Shanghai right as the wet, cold winter was beginning to seep through my bones, despite the layers upon layers of scarves, jackets and hats I wore out and about. Erika and I joked that you would never know we grew up in the northeast US if you saw us shivering our way around Shanghai. It was kind of pathetic how much we complained about the cold. From the Pudong airport at midnight on the Friday before Christmas I boarded a China Eastern flight to Auckland, New Zealand, where I frantically rushed to finish my final papers before my family arrived the next day. Yup, it was fun trying to figure out how to get a charger that fit the outlet at 3 am on Saturday night.

Anyway, it was all worth it to see my family after four months away from home. I’m convinced I have the most b.a. dad ever because we rented an RV after flying to Christchurch and he commandeered that giant, unforgiving beast (only suitable description for it) across mountains, over tiny bridges, around steep, narrow, curving roads, over cliffs that dropped thousands of feet down to straight up ocean, and into the tiny parking spots at the RV parks. It was quite an adventure, breathtaking and exciting every minute. Also just wonderful and comfortable to be surrounded by family again, despite the bickering and arguing that is always bound to arise when with the ones you love the most. Thanks to my parents for being so patient and loving despite my constant mood swings.

New Zealand is one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, though I still have a lot of the world left to see. Didn’t see any hobbits bouncing around the shire though, so a little disappointed. Did watch the Lord of the Rings crammed with the family in front of the RV’s mini tv. So all in all, not a bad alternative.

I’m sure for those people who have lived abroad, it’s always a huge culture shock/adjustment moving back home or transitioning out of a place. For me it’s been super strange leaving China and not going home but going to a place like home (but different enough to be really weird). I’m sorry for the lack of good description there but all I can come up with is that it is weird to be around so many friendly English speakers but then driving on the other side of the road and not recognizing any store or brand names from home.

Now that I’ve been in Sydney a day, it’s even stranger of a transition. I just got to the Youth With a Mission base where I will be spending the next month teaching English to a group of 10th grade Korean boys. I came in on a bus service from the airport in the dark last night, not really knowing who was expecting me or what the base would look like. It’s super hot in Sydney now and the building I’m in is comfortable but pretty basic.
Because of the heat and the white walls and the plastic folding chairs and tables and the smell (smell can trigger memories like no other), I’m reminded of the Happy House in Haiti, where I haven’t been since 2012 but will never forget. But anyway, about teaching English for the next month. I feel really unqualified for this, and didn’t actually find out I was going to be teaching until a couple weeks ago. But it’s only a month and it’s not a paid position so hopefully they don’t expect a lot of me. I know it will be a learning experience but I have no clue what I’m doing. It’s weird because the area that I’m in, Glenorie, about an hour outside of the city, could be along the road from Pennington to Princeton, NJ or in a suburb of Chicago. Or even Maine. It’s wealthy, full of rolling hills, farms, gated communities, trees, and little shopping centers. I went shopping today for essentials and things at Target and then got snacks at a grocery store on the way back. It felt almost like I was back in Princeton but not quite, because again the cars drive on the other side and everything is a little different.

So the point is that a lot has changed in the past couple weeks and it’s always hard. I will never regret my amazing travel opportunities and experiences around the world, but I really do miss home. Nothing is quite the same. I’m finding that at the same time that I miss home, I also deeply miss Shanghai, with all its crazy aggressive drivers and metro chaos and spitting, smoking old men. A shoutout to my roommate Erika in Shanghai and all the friends old and new who made my time there memorable. And of course to my family who does more for me than is imaginable and our time in New Zealand together. These kind of people and things remind me everyday of who I am and what I can come back to. And I’m reminded also that at one time I felt nervous and anxious about being in Shanghai but I made friends and got used to it. So I’m praying and hoping that that will happen here too.

*image: drawing by Bruce Swann, Australia Inland Mission

Reflections on the Identity Crisis

In a world bursting with insincerity, temporality, complexity and duplicity, it is more than natural that people everywhere at every age and stage of life struggle to understand themselves and grasp at the construction or discovery of their personal identity. I have been wrestling a lot lately with the concept of identity, such an intimate, personal, individual, intrinsic notion that drives every person on this planet, but yet so malleable and vulnerable to social, relational, environmental and cultural forces. I always thought it was so cliché and dramatic when kids went through identity crises in middle school or high school and cut off all their hair or got crazy tattoos or went wild and became disillusioned and rebellious. I never understood how people could seemingly so easily lose their way, like they weren’t grounded by anything and everything claimed their attention and pulled them farther and farther away from the truth and a real sense of purpose and identity. Let me note that by no means are all the kids who get tattoos and cut their hair off or rebel against the system lost and disillusioned, but that is definitely a trend in teenage culture today.

So, where is this going? I have so many questions about identity because I’m in this journey too, figuring out what it means to be an alive, thinking, seeking, multicultural young adult and follower of Jesus all at once. And while I’ve been deliberating over what forms identity and what forces and elements can forge the closest truth-seeking, loving, humble, sensitive, aware person to the image of Christ, I’ve come up with an idea of three forces that shape identity, at least for me. I don’t know if I’ve come away with any answers, but I definitely see major challenges out there both for myself, other individuals, the body of believers, and the world. Hopefully you can discover truth and resonance in my words as well.

First of all, I believe everyone has a cultural identity. This can be constructed by where you’re from, your family, customs, heritage, traditions, national pride, patriotism, loyalty to your country or your people. It can be strengthened and formed through language, community, where you live, what you eat, the way you look, or the way you talk. More on this later.

Next, there is spiritual identity. For me, this is clear and has been for as long as I can recall. I know that my value and worth is immeasurable because of Jesus’ sacrifice in taking my sin and the sins of the world to the cross in order that I can live. The ultimate determinant of my identity is my worth, freedom and purpose in Christ. But what does it mean to truly have an identity in Christ? Can that be enough to bring Christians together in a world divided so fiercely along ethnic, cultural, religious, and economic lines? How can the body of believers unite in awe of God’s grace, mercy and love when the world has made us so different? These are some of the questions I’ve been struggling with. Jesus is more than enough, but do our relationships as Christians and does the church and body of believers reflect that?

And lastly, though this one is a little vague, everyone has a relational identity. This is reflected in the people who you choose from among your communities to relate to and develop relationships with, people who understand you and who you feel comfortable around who shape who you are. Maybe you share a common cultural or spiritual identity or maybe your backgrounds are completely different but your personalities or outlooks on the world and common interests draw you together. Your relational identity reflects your deepest desires, what excites you, impassions you, and who you want to spend time with in order to best be yourself!

Of course, you can see that these spheres of identity are full of layers upon layers of complexity and that they cross and overlap unendingly in ways we probably will never be aware of. Your relational identity is likely shaped by your cultural and spiritual identity (and any other aspect of identity that I’m neglecting), because you choose the people you spend time with based on who you are or who you want to become. But there are so many complications and complexities. Like what do you do when your spheres of identity clash? Or when one of your spheres is split? It is a struggle to define and fully comprehend each of the facets of your identity. For me, cultural identity and how it plays into relational (community) identity is the hardest to figure out. I was born in China and look 100% Chinese but grew up in America in a conservative, Christian family. So where exactly do I belong? My spiritual identity has always been clear, but when it intersects with different groups of cultural identity, it makes it hard to relate to even those who share similar core faith and belief systems. Knowing what about my identity is most important and what is adaptable, I continue to navigate a maze of relationships and life circumstances, in search of truth and true fellowship.

How do you create and nurture a balance of all of your spheres of identity in a way that enables you to be loving, aware, multicultural, sensitive, diverse, and Christ-like so that you can be friends with lots of culturally, spiritually and relationally different people? And as Christians, how do we first and foremost cultivate a spiritual identity that is clear and concrete and then strive to build relationships from that? Is this even possible? Ideally, this would create an extremely culturally and relationally diverse group of people.

Though I could never hope to comprehend how achieving this delicate balance of identity is possible, I believe that harmony of personal identity is sort of an allegory for the ideal image of the larger body of believers. As we individually strive to construct an identity rooted in truth, purpose, holiness, awareness and love, our separate but like-minded images will bring us closer together and transform the collective. Reflecting on Pentecost that just passed us this Sunday, when “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in their own language (Acts 2:1-13), clearly God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit moves throughout all peoples and places. Jesus’ commission challenged his followers to go and make disciples of all nations – creating a multicultural, multiethnic, diverse, complex, heterogeneous church. In Luke 13, Jesus says as he describes heaven that “people will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

So, as we go forward from this day, let us strive to treat foreigners residing in our land as native-born, loving them as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:33-34), because the image of the kingdom of God is lively and beautiful in its diversity. Let us continually thirst for genuine, God-breathed truth in the answers, relationships and communities that we seek. Let us always remember what binds us together and what parts of our identity are solid and steadfast despite the storms and battles of this tormented world. Think about the ripple effect and the many ways in which you individually can enact reaction and change. Never stop seeking and striving to discover, develop and cultivate new aspects of your identity!

image: artist, Yann Houri, France, 1990

What Haiti Really Taught Me.

“Haiti changed me. My heart, my worldview, my thoughts, my passions and desires. It’s where I developed a vision for international development, poverty alleviation, sustainable and equitable business, and creative solutions to environmental and social injustices. Seeing the beauty and joy and incredibly unique and awe-inspiring Haitian landscape, people and culture strengthened my faith and opened my eyes to God’s plan for the world and for my life.”

This is the classic response I give whenever anyone asks me about my short-term mission trip experiences. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong or untrue about it. But right at a time in my life when I find myself lodged into monotonous patterns and routines of college life, going through the motions, struggling to live with daily passion, vision and purpose, a good friend and mentor asked me to reflect on my three trips to Haiti and write a blog post for my home church about my experiences and reflections. I thought about it a lot, and almost wrote an extended version of the few sentences above until I realized how cliché, fake, and shallow that would be. Instead, I really challenged myself to deeply reflect on the true significance of Haiti to my daily life two years after my last trip, the ways that I allow these experiences to permeate my everyday decision making, and the ways that I continue to walk in ignorance and neglect for the place and people that I claim to have been so moved by.

I’ve been to Haiti three times, beginning in March 2009 and spanning my high school career. I came face to face with extreme poverty for the first time, and I will never forget how much the sight of tin and mud makeshift huts, barefooted kids with tattered t-shirts, infants with brassy, red hair (a sign of iron deficiency), and people openly defecating on the roadside, broke me and moved me. Despite these searing memories that replay in my mind often, I continue to find myself living and mindlessly participating in avaricious, prideful, selfish cycles of materialism, apathy, separation and indifference to the constant struggles and battles of the poor and oppressed around the world. As much as my worldly perspective has broadened and softened and my eyes have been truly opened to unimaginable poverty, these realizations mean nothing if they fail to penetrate my heart and transform my everyday life. I realize that the only way that we can ever truly dream of change and empowerment for Haitians or people anywhere is if we change the way that we live our daily lives in the comfort of our own homes. The stories, faces, and sights that we see and experience in Haiti or any other developing country will remain nothing more than poverty tourism or toxic charity if we don’t allow them to change how we treat the poor in our own community, the way that we handle our money, the way that we approach our job or schoolwork, or the way that we see and treat other peoples and cultures different from us. I believe that God does use experiences like short term mission trips to break us, mold us, change us and inspire us, but we have to remember that the discomfort, life changing realizations, and harsh realities we see are not meant to only last a week and then fade in the midst of the comforts, routines, and busyness of everyday life. The change, challenge and discomfort should be ongoing, continual and tangible even as we pass between cultures, places, national boundaries, economic strata, and in a sense, realities.

I encourage all readers to take this moment to reflect on God’s call, purpose and commands for your life, and how His Word in the midst of the experiences you face tangibly takes root and is lived out daily. Whether you have had the opportunity to participate on a short-term mission trip or not, ask God what it truly means to be poor in spirit or to go out and make disciples or to be the light of the world in 21st century America. And if you have been on mission trips to Haiti or other nations, ask God how to keep these people close to your heart even as you are physically separate. Pray for them, thank God for your experiences, ask him to soften, shape, and open your heart in order to mold your actions so that you can truly live out Christ’s message of love, grace, and redemption here on earth.

image: Joao Baptista, “Saint-Pierre Church, Haiti,” from Haiti Sketchbook 2012/13

Life Lessons from Cows

Last night I attended the annual Economics department Grossman lecture, this year given by Dean Karlan, the founder of the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action, whose talk was titled “Continued Existence of Cows in India Disproves Central Tenets of Capitalism.” The title reflects the idea that the economics principle that humans make rational decisions can’t always be true because so many people in India continue to have cows and buffalo when year after year these animals yield a negative return on investment in inputs and outputs across the board (not rational). Of course there are many plausible explanations as to why this is the case – for example, cows are an illiquid investment that people may prefer because they can save their money in an animal instead of an account or somewhere where they may be tempted to spend it. Another consideration is the social and religious significance of the cow, in regards to which Karlan raised a question from a social Darwinist view that if year after year the cow continues to cost money, why wouldn’t people move toward a more practical, if not lucrative investment as their object of reverence? I know, very curious …

I want to note that although this is not the focus of my post, this lecture opened my eyes to a level of innovation and creativity in microfinance techniques and strategies to address poverty and a focus on “bridging the gap between cutting-edge academic research and action by nonprofits, governments and firms” that I have never seen before. It is pretty amazing stuff. I encourage you to check out IPA’s website!

http://www.poverty-action.org/about

So, the comment about the irrationality of the continued reverence of the cow in India has prompted me to think about some deeper things that I’ve been contemplating for awhile now. I realize that on one hand, yes, the cow in India seems incredibly irrational even in the face of the valid explanations offered for its prominence, but on the other hand, I see that it is a display, a reflection, an allegory for something much bigger. The scope of what the world views as “normal” and rational is so narrow and restrictive. It is worldly, a social, cultural, and human construction. As a follower of Christ, I know that what God did in sacrificing his son for sinners, Jesus’ death on a cross to save and recenter the world, the lives that we are called to lead, and the decisions that we are commanded to make every day as Christians, are never going to be seen as rational or explainable in the eyes of the world.

I know that the Indian families with cows are likely not Christians and the irrationality of their behavior is due to a number of unrelated factors, but that is why this is an allegory for a much bigger issue. Moments where people (like those academics, economists and researchers at IPA) notice incongruities in what the world has deemed as rational, normal or acceptable, should prompt Christians to evaluate their lives. Everything we do as followers of Jesus should cause puzzlement in the eyes of the world. Our actions should reflect a radical departure from the axis of power, greed, wealth, violence, and hate that the world centers around today. This doesn’t mean our actions have to be huge and noteworthy in the eyes of the world, though those can be impactful too. But nothing about stopping and having a genuine conversation with someone, smiling at a stranger, or doing random, unscripted acts of kindness, is rational or normal. It is rational for humans to do anything in our power to preserve ourselves, better our own lives, live as comfortably and happily as we can, solely for ourselves. But as Christ followers, we are called to much, much more. As Brian Zahnd eloquently states in Beauty Will Save the World,

Jesus’ death and resurrection “saves the world from the pernicious lie that power and violence have to be the foundation of human social order. At the cross Jesus cast out Satan as the ruler of the world and gave the world not only a new ruler but also a new center, a new axis. In Christ the world no longer revolves around the pragmatic truth (lie!) of power enforced by violence. In Christ the world now is re-centered around the beautiful truth of love expressed in forgiveness” (77). 

The basis of Innovations for Poverty Action is the realization that immense amounts of evaluation, research and behavioral assessment are needed to develop the best approaches to fighting poverty. If a nation’s respect for a cow, or impoverished Kenyans’ decisions to take out a loan, start a business, look for alternatives to change their lives, etc., are causing people at Innovations for Poverty Action (and other places) to reevaluate traditional economic principles and frames of looking at poverty, this draws attention to a couple issues.

First of all, lives lived out, people’s emotions, thoughts, complex life situations, cultural norms and values, etc., simply cannot be boxed in by principles or rationales. We can notice general trends, themes, and guidelines of action, but they should never become so rigid or taken for granted that they shape all policies and ways of doing things. A reevaluation of poverty action, and a deeper assessment of people’s behavior and decisions in shaping results, is a breath of fresh air and a real necessity, considering the complexity of the world and the variety of cultural, social, political and economic situations.

Secondly, as a follower of Jesus who has committed every day to living in love and making choices that strive to differ from the world’s expectations, norms and values, and instead reflect Jesus’ redeeming love, forgiveness, and reorientation of the world, I have a renewed sense of hope in the realization that people notice incongruities and differences. Whether they are good or bad (hopefully good!), acting outside of traditional economic, cultural or social norms catch people’s attention. I am challenged and encouraged to think of really practical, organic, daily things I can do to reflect love instead of hate.

So a few final thoughts. As new creations in Christ, we must remember that we are in the world but not of the world. We live in the midst of a broken world but in the presence of an incomprehensibly powerful, forgiving, merciful, redeeming God. Political struggles, racial and ethnic violence that we cannot understand, brutality and unimaginable horrors of this world, should impassion us, unsettle us, anger us, grieve us, because we live in this world and these are the people that God loves and Jesus died for. But we cannot lose focus and forget that we can live everyday making conscious decisions and actions that reflect Christ’s kingdom on earth, which directly collide with the worldly ideals of power, violence, pride and selfishness. Starting today, don’t let the world tell you what is rational and normal, but let your new life and purpose in Christ motivate your actions, and in turn, spark intrigue and curiosity in those around you.

Mex Reflects

I am eternally thankful for the incredible eight week opportunity I had in Mexico to observe missions, learn about and experience Mexican culture, serve and love alongside the church, and meet so many amazing new people. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I learned and how to put it into words, and this is a rough attempt to do that, so bear with me …

One of the biggest revelations for me was the beauty of the Holy Spirit and the way it is moving everywhere that Christians are, among different cultures, nations, people groups, languages, etc. Simply because I’ve grown up in the American church, I have an idea engrained in my mind of what a sermon, worship, and a church service should be like. Different people and cultures have different ways of communicating, worshipping, and loving, but God is using them to reach their communities and families with the gospel as well.

I saw a boldness in the Mexican church that I don’t see as much here to serve and love and share the good news. I met Christians with unbelievable testimonies of God’s grace and goodness who were not shy or afraid to share their stories as examples of God’s power and love. It was a display for me of the burden that we as Christians need to have to share our faith and see our friends and family saved. It definitely renewed my sense of purpose as I return to Colby in the fall and begin my sophomore year. I pray that God will give me opportunities to share what I’ve learned in Mexico with my friends and classmates and that I will constantly looking for moments to share my faith with boldness and love.

The Mexican church and the missionaries I met were a living example of the reality of Matthew 16:24-26 where as Christians we are commanded to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. It’s not enough to say we believe and continue on with school, work, etc. as silent or secretive believers. It seems to me like the religious taboo in the United States is one of the instruments of Satan to scare our faith into silence and make us believe no one wants or needs to hear what we have to share. As a Christian, even without having ever experienced serious persecution, I live in somewhat constant fear of being shunned or rejected if I speak up and share my faith. This is somewhat of the reality in American culture today, but it was cool in Mexico that certain people were receptive and open to hearing the gospel and would sit and talk with us for hours about their lives, questions, doubts, etc. This doesn’t mean there isn’t fear, resistance or persecution of Christians there, because there certainly is, and I heard stories of those responses as well.

Side note: Much of the persecution comes from Catholics, who are largely worshipping the Virgin of Guadalupe and practicing a syncretized version of Catholicism, a combination between Roman Catholicism and Aztec pagan idolatry.

A clock in the center square of the Basilica in Mexico City
A clock in the center square of the Basilica in Mexico City, an example of the syncretism within Mexican Catholicism

Anyway, seeing the way God opened doors and the receptiveness among some people was encouraging and confirming of the strength and hope of the gospel in reaching lives. I realized I have been living a lot of my life in doubt and fear of the truth and power of the gospel because of what American culture says about what people care about and what is popular and acceptable. This trip confirmed for me God’s goodness and perfection and the fact that humans are broken and depraved but God is perfect in everything, and so much bigger than what we can see or imagine. Seeing the way Mexican Christians and missionaries love and share the gospel and the growing church there gave me a glimpse of God’s plan, that is so much bigger than American cultural values or my fears of being rejected.

I know this is a pretty general recap of some of my reflections, but I hope it is encouraging and confirming of the power of the Holy Spirit and the importance of not being silent Christians but instead loving, serving, talking and praying that the Holy Spirit will move in people’s hearts. I pray that God will open doors and that we will all experience the boldness He has given us to share the gospel, because it is what we have been called to do.

Joshua 1:9

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Guadalajara and Quinceo!

Just got back from two incredible weeks in Guadalajara, serving and learning alongside youth at a youth retreat, visiting an indigenous mountain village, and spending time in the city with Pastor Fernando, his family, and his church, Grace Bible. It is always amazing and humbling to be around other believers, especially in a different culture than your own, because you realize how much they love the Lord and how the Holy Spirit is alive and moving all over the world.

Quinceo was a small, mountainous indigenous village about three hours from Guadalajara, with a population of about 7,000. Along with four other interns, Bryan, from the local church in Ixtapaluca, and Pastor Fernando, I had the incredible opportunity to spend four days living with and learning from these people. The women wore traditional outfits, gorgeous, colorful, embroidered blouses and full, sparkling, long skirts. The people opened their homes to us and welcomed us with kisses and greetings. We ate five meals on the second day because everyone from the church was so generous and showed their love and kindness by feeding us.

Quinceo Women

I met two girls, Rosie and Esperanza, who really touched my heart. They were only fifteen and ten years old, and they followed me around and kept inviting me to dinner and to stay overnight at their homes. I could communicate with them in Spanish, although the primary language in Quinceo is Purehpecha, the indigenous language, which was impossible to pick up. I loved that I could have a conversation with them and learn a little about their lives. They both hugged me with tears in their eyes when it was time for us to leave.

Back in the city of Guadalajara, we stayed with families from the church and worked with the pastor and his family for the next few days. We had the opportunity to go to a missions update, where a man who had been serving with his family in Pakistan for 12 years talked about his experiences living among Muslims and sharing the Gospel. The next day at church, we got to be part of a Skype call to missionaries in Turkey, who have been there during the revolts and for numerous years earlier. It was incredible to see how the church, of probably only about 200 people, is moving and serving the Lord around the world. The missionary from Pakistan shared a couple videos with statistics on numbers of unreached people around the world, which shocked and challenged me. One of the videos said that 2.5 billion people around the world had never heard the gospel, primarily people in Muslim and Buddhist countries. It was shocking to hear that number and to hear that the man and his family were the only Mexicans at the time living in Pakistan, among a sparse sprinkling of Christians. It makes me think about the passage in Matthew 16:24-26 where Jesus says that anyone who wants to follow Him must pick up their cross and lose their life. Both the missionary family and the Muslims who received the Gospel surely encountered this command face to face constantly. The missionary family as they struggled to adapt to Pakistani culture, had to sacrifice food and comforts and Christian community that they were used to, and Pakistanis as they would have to deny their culture, lifestyles, families, friends, and personal safety and well-being to follow Christ. It definitely makes me think about a future in missions and the ways that I can love and serve those I know who don’t know the Gospel. Again, it was so beautiful and humbling to see the passion and love for service of this church in Guadalajara.

Interns with the Pastor Fernando and his family
Interns with Pastor Fernando and his family
Missionary Wall
In front of Grace Church’s Missions Wall

Back in Mexico City with the other interns and missionaries in this area, I am praying for God to continue softening my heart and opening my eyes to whatever he wants to teach me. I have been feeling homesick lately, just for the comforts and summer fun that I’m used to, but God continues to make my time here fruitful.

The girls
Interns in Quinceo!

*Photo credits to Marcy Metzger

Just a quick shout-out to my younger sister, Beth, who got baptized in Lake Michigan at a youth retreat last week. I am so thankful for her friendship and amazing heart for people and God. I know that God will take this step to continue to move in her heart and use her for His incredible and perfect plan.

Love and blessings! Thanks for reading!

Graduations, Birthdays, Cake and more Cake …

It’s been a busy past week here in San Juan! I just got back tonight from the community center’s “graduation,” marking the culmination of the year’s classes and the start of a summer break. Everyone who teaches classes at the community center, whether it’s sewing, English, computer skills, art, or basketball, does it voluntarily. Most of them have full time jobs outside of their teaching responsibilities, so a small ceremony like this to honor not only the students who give of their time to learn, but also the teachers who make sacrifices weekly, is really important. I have been really touched from what I can see of the teachers’ humble hearts. Also, watching the kids in the computer class present their powerpoint projects with photos, animations, and special effects, really made me reevaluate skills that I have that I’ve taken for granted. Where I’m from, simply attending public school everyday, even with minimal effort, basically guarantees competence in Microsoft Office. If you didn’t take the computer classes offered, you likely figured things out in your own time on your home computer since essays, power-points, and projects assigned regularly required knowing these skills. Also, seeing how difficult it is to learn English, but also seeing the students’ eagerness and determination, makes me realize how lucky I am to have been raised in an English-speaking environment. Knowing English is something that I’ve always taken for granted, until I see others struggling to pronounce vowels or read the alphabet.

I also had an interesting experience today with a young boy named Jonathan, probably about seven or eight years old. He walked up to me and muttered under his breath, “Japonesa” … or “Japanese.” I’m used to the karate jokes, the questions about whether or not I speak Mandarin, and the squinting of the eyes. However, it is unsettling and continues to bother me slightly even though I hide it with a smile and polite giggles. I told Jonathan that I was Chinese, not Japanese, but that I was also American because I have lived my whole life in the states. He shrugged and continued to mutter, “Japonesa.” Every time he saw me throughout the night, he would squint his eyes and giggle, repeating “Japonesa” in the same childish tone. I didn’t quite know what to do, because I knew he was just playing and didn’t know any better, but his persistence still bothered me. No matter what I told him, he refused to listen or even try to understand. These kinds of experiences reinforce two ideas in my mind. One, it is crazy to me what young children notice and care about. They have no fear or shame in staring or pointing out differences in appearance. I guess I was once that way too; in fact, I know I was … but that’s a story for a different time. Anyway, it shocked me that Jonathan didn’t even care who I was, where I was really from, or that I was trying to communicate with him in his own language; all he could see was that I was different, and he wasn’t going to forget it. I love interacting with kids, which is why it saddens me a little when I want to talk with them and love on them but we can’t even move past differences in facial features. Going along with this, I realize not only how lucky I am to have grown up in a diverse area where people of all different backgrounds, religions, races, and ethnicities live and work together, but I also realize how important it is for other people to get this experience. We hear that the world is increasingly globalized and interconnected, but some people in San Juan have probably never seen a Chinese person before. I guess all I can do is smile and politely explain who I am and what I’m doing here, in hopes that my interactions with people may have a slight impact on their engrained world-views and maybe change the experience of the next Chinese person who visits … 🙂

But really, it has been an eye-opening first couple weeks here. I have learned a lot about missionary life and I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of people and hear lots of different stories. I realize that the sense of adventure and excitement that drove me to short-term mission trips in the past is not synonymous with everyday missionary life or the reality of spreading the gospel. Missions is really just living life with the purpose of evangelism, making friends and disciples. But it is a long, challenging process and not constantly full of the thrill of short-term missions. However, at the same time, I am continually seeing ways that it is very rewarding and fulfilling.

The O’Brien’s and my host family threw me a wonderful mini surprise birthday celebration tonight! Here are a few photos from that!

My beautiful cake!
My beautiful cake!
So many candles!
So many candles!
The flames kept coming back!
The flames kept coming back!
Jazmin, Sarai, and me
Jazmin, Sarai, and me
All the girls :)
All the girls!

God’s Goodness.

It’s been a wonderful and eye-opening first week here in San Juan!

Yesterday, I spent the day with Ivonne, learning about her work for Obrero Fiel, a ministry that aims to equip church leaders, missionaries, and pastors in Spanish speaking countries with biblical resources. I sent some emails for her and helped do inventory in the bookstore.

I have been spending a lot of time with the O’Brien’s, a missionary family in San Juan, and especially their kids, who are cute, playful, and full of energy. They remind me how much fun it is to be a kid and I feel comfortable, youthful, and free to be my natural silly self whenever I am around them.

I also helped teach an English class on Tuesday and Wednesday evening at the local community center, Nueva Imagen. I was a bit nervous because I’ve never taught English before and I don’t have any experience. But, the class was learning about money and common household items, so I helped organize an activity based on buying and selling these common items with fake money so that the students could review vocabulary and practice using money. It was a lot of fun, but definitely an example of the flexibility that is necessary for ministry in Mexico, and teaching in general. It helped that I have been learning Chinese this year, and can relate to the struggles that the students are going through with memorizing new vocabulary and getting pronunciations right. I can more easily sympathize with how difficult it must be to say even seemingly basic things like numbers or directions, because I still struggle with those things in Chinese. It’s not just the words themselves that are different, but the ordering and structuring of sentences that makes it really tough.

On Monday, I got a tour of Queretaro, the capital of the state of Queretaro, and also the local city, San Juan. I spent the day with Yadhira, a young woman who also works for Obrero Fiel. I thought she was going to show me her work, but instead we ended up walking miles and miles around the city, trying to find cultural sites that she thought would be interesting. I was really up for anything, but she insisted that I get a taste for the history of the area. It was a tiring but exciting day. Definitely a stretch for my Spanish speaking abilities, but also a great opportunity for practice.

I have been doing two new devotions in the mornings using YouVersion on my computer, since my phone hasn’t been working. One is called “30 Ways in 30 Days” about evangelism and the other is called “God’s Goodness.” I will end with one of the passages from “God’s Goodness” this morning, also one of my favorites.

Romans 8:37-39
“No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

image: drawing of Mexico City, DF by artist Robert Birkenes