Prayers for the deported

Today, The Mudroom has published an essay I wrote about the grief of journeying alongside refugee claimants who are denied asylum, and the ways that my coworkers and I have learned to care for our souls so that we can continue to reach out to new arrivals despite the recurring pain of having friends deported. Here’s how it starts:

Silently, we sit around in a circle as my co-worker picks up the first candle, speaking a name and a prayer as she lights the wick and sets the tiny flame down in the middle of the table.  We each follow suit, one prayer and tongue of fire after another.

God, we don’t know where they are or if they’re alive…

Please keep her safe…

Please provide whatever he needs…

Just don’t let them be alone….

May she know that she is loved.

Each candle on the table represents a friend who has been deported. Each prayer is for a family or an individual we have accompanied through the process of making a refugee claim in Canada. These people have all failed to secure the protection they have asked for, often because their story was not believed…

You can read the rest of the piece over at the The Mudroom.  If you are someone who works with/lives alongside marginalized communities facing frequent violence or loss, what are the ways that you have learned to tend your soul in such a way that you are able to continue loving and reaching out without succumbing to burnout, hopelessness, or compassion fatigue? How can we strengthen ourselves to live as friends and allies with the oppressed over the long haul? I’d love to hear from you.

Two Canadas

two canadas

Every week, our community gathers for a shared meal. We are made up of staff, volunteers, newly-arrived refugee claimant families living in community with one another in the share space of the welcome houses, and families who have already moved out and are in various stages of establishing themselves in Canada.  Someone volunteers to cook, and we indulge in Kurdish or Afghan or Congolese food, getting to know each other a bit better by experiencing the smells and flavors that the cooks for that week have grown up with.

It’s getting late on a Tuesday night, and the crowd is thinning out. My friend has come to community dinner after an early morning and a long day at work, but he stays to wash dishes anyway. As we stand together at the sink, scrubbing and rinsing the plates and glasses, I ask him how work is going. He works in the most impoverished part of Vancouver, known locally as the Downtown East Side. This diverse neighborhood is home to some vibrant and inspiring communities, full of people whose stories of creativity and resilience would take your breath away.  Paradoxically, it is also a place where issues of drug addiction, homelessness, and street prostitution are concentrated and contained in the middle of what is otherwise known as one of the “most livable” cities in the world. It’s the same neighborhood where Andy and I lived with the Servants community for six months when we first arrived in Canada, and it’s currently the epicenter of BC’s fentanyl crisis.

Fentanyl is an opioid 100 times stronger than morphine, and it has become so common in the street drugs sold and consumed in the Downtown East Side that 80% of the street drugs tested in a recent study were laced with it. This means that on a daily basis, the desperate people turning to drugs to cope with their pain and trauma—such as sexually exploited women, abused foster children who have aged out of care, and people with chronic, untreated mental illness—are now at higher risk of losing their lives, because the same dosage of heroin, cocaine, or crystal meth that would have merely provided a short period of euphoric escape in the past is now likely to deal a death blow. Overdose deaths are nothing new in Vancouver, but the result of fentanyl’s proliferation has been such a sharp increase in overdose deaths across BC (922 in 2016 alone) that our provincial health officer has declared a public health emergency, and the province has urged the federal government to do the same.

My friend’s job has made the crisis personal. He’s been trained to use Narcan, an opiate antidote that works as an emergency treatment for overdoses by blocking the effects of opiates on the brain. During one of his shifts, he found a man in the street who had overdosed on an opiate laced with fentanyl, and he saved the man’s life by injecting him with naloxone and waiting with him until an ambulance arrived.

My friend tells me about the sense of fulfillment he gets from being part of a community at work that is building people up, and the happiness he feels in seeing people make progress in their lives as a result of the care and respect they’ve been shown. He reflects on the anger he feels about the government’s complacency in responding to the fentanyl crisis, and the way that the down-and-out people he sees in the neighborhood are robbed of their dignity in a million different ways on a daily basis. He even reflects on the similarity between the indifference of the wealthier people he sees interacting with homeless people in the Downtown East Side, and the privileged obliviousness with which he once lived his life in his home country—before he lost everything, before his family sought asylum on the other side of the world, before they entered into temporary poverty and into the stressful process of waiting for The Powers That Be to decide their fate in a hearing room.

I am moved by my friend’s compassion; by the fact that instead of losing himself in anger or despair over the injustice that he himself is experiencing, he is instead choosing to throw himself into the hard work of confronting suffering, building relationships, and doing what he can to make the world a better place. My friend hails from a country that has been torn apart by war. He and his family were forced to flee their home under threat of death, and so far, they have experienced the refugee protection system here in Canada as an unresponsive bureaucracy that is yet to grant them protection or provide any promise of permanence or safety. (So much depends on the subjective assessment of the particular human being assigned to decide your case, the potential ignorance or inflexibility of the system, or how well or poorly your lawyer does their job…)

Yet instead of feeling self-pity, what my friend feels is a sense of righteous anger on behalf of all those who are unjustly suffering in our society. “You get very tired, but at the same time there is something pushing you,” he explains, speaking of his sense that God strengthens and inspires him to continue being present with people around him who are in difficult circumstances.

We discuss the idea that there are actually two Canadas: one inhabited by wealthy people who can choose to go about their lives without ever facing the brutal realities of poverty, addiction, and injustice in their country, and another inhabited by marginalized people like the ones my friend meets at work. He views the world of the Downtown East Side as the more honest one because the people he’s gotten to know there are so real. “There’s no fakeness,” he explains. “If I had to choose between the two,” my friend states with conviction, “I would choose to stay with those guys [in the Downtown East Side].”

Tears spring to my eyes as I realize that in the solidarity my Muslim friend describes, I am encountering the heart of Christ. I realize that, in the relatively brief time that he has lived in this country—with precarious status, no less—my friend has engaged more fully with Canadian society than the majority of people who have lived here their entire lives without ever having to justify their presence within these borders. I realize that this man’s life challenges me to embody the ideals that I myself profess but so easily fall short of living out. My friend is a refugee, but that label doesn’t even come close to capturing who he really is.

I pray for the day when my friend’s family will be allowed to officially call this place home, the day the beauty of their lives and contributions will be recognized and welcomed, and the day that my friend’s longings for justice will be fulfilled.

Resisting a single story

Recently, at the nonprofit office where I work , a new volunteer came in to help members of our community look for their first jobs in Canada.  As we debriefed at the end of the day, she expressed surprise about the level of skill and competence shown by the people she had met. She was impressed by their high level of education and professional experience, and she told me that she hadn’t expected refugees to be like that. “Someone should write about this,” she told me. “People don’t know this about refugees.”

I am grateful that this volunteer had the chance to encounter people seeking refuge in Canada face-to-face, and that she allowed the experience to challenge the stories of refugees she had encountered up to that point. Her surprise alludes to one of the narratives I often hear repeated about refugees in popular culture these days: that they are helpless, passive recipients of charity. This narrative has no doubt motivated a large number of people to help because it tugs on heart strings, but such a one-dimensional story is dehumanizing nonetheless. Though it is true that refugee newcomers have survived trauma and tragedy and are in need of assistance as they begin the process of rebuilding their lives in a new country, they are not merely the victims of the worst thing that has ever happened to them. The people I know who are living the refugee experience are protagonists in their own stories; often, they were forced to flee their home countries  in the first place because of courageous decisions to stand up for what they believe in, to defend the rights of others, or to be themselves in hostile places that demand conformity.

But beyond negating an individual’s agency in his or her own life, the “charity case” stereotype of refugees plays into the very destructive and misleading idea that we need to be careful about how many of these needy people we let into our country. According to this narrative, we could easily be swamped with people who will be a drain on resources and drag us all down by taking more than they contribute. Following this logic, we can begin to see refugees–or people in poverty generally–as a problem to be solved.

Yet I have discovered firsthand just how far from reality this story really is. The refugees in my life are medical doctors, diplomats, poets, human rights activists, engineers, journalists, and business people. They are children who arrive with no English and become fluent in a matter of months just by overhearing adults’ conversations or being thrown into a classroom where no one else speaks their language. Or they are housewives who never even had the chance to attend school in their home countries, but who are now eager to enroll in high school completion programs, learn language and culture, and start their careers.

The refugees I know are loving parents, loyal friends, socially engaged people who are eager to volunteer and give back to their communities. Basically, they’re the kind of neighbors that any of us would be lucky to live next door to, and the kind of people we should be welcoming into our nations with open arms—not only because it is the right thing to protect people who are vulnerable, but because of the amazing contributions these individuals will make to our society. Seeing all the creativity and energy my friends bring with them and all that they offer to our community, I am unable to reconcile my experience of them with the fear-mongering rhetoric of scarcity that tells us there are “too many” coming, or not enough resources to go around.

In her TED talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Adichie explains how the use of a single story to represent an entire nation or group ultimately “robs people of dignity. It makes makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult” because “it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” When Adichie discusses the complexity of her own childhood, touching both the happiness of her family and the fear of living under the rule of a military junta, she tells her audience, “All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only [the] negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

So let’s spend more time getting to know as many stories as we can: the stories that have formed us, and the stories that have formed the people we think we already know. The next time you hear a single story flattening refugees or  any other group into cardboard cut-outs of who they really are, think of the magnificent, multi-dimensional human beings I’ve just described, and challenge the narrative.

My guess is that the more stories we are able to hold at the same time about the same person or group of people, the less we will be able to draw firm lines between “us” and “them,” between who is “good” and who is “bad,” or between who belongs and who doesn’t. The more fluid our categories become, the more we will recognize pieces of ourselves in each other, and the more we will be both humbled and awed by what we see.

Today I wear shorts: A poem written in anger

Sometimes  when I experience street harassment, I confront the inappropriate words or behavior right there in the moment. But much more often, I am so taken off  guard–or uncomfortable, or even afraid–that I either find myself unable to meaningfully respond at all, or I make a calculated decision to exit the situation as soon as possible instead of reacting, for my own safety. In such instances, rage or disgust tends to start welling up inside me as soon as I walk away. These emotions are directed towards the person who violated or intimidated me, and also–unfairly, I know–at myself, for my own silence and passivity, or for not thinking quickly enough to find the words or the action that I needed in the moment.

map

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes that “anger is a map” that “shows us where our boundaries are,” what is important to us, and “where we want to go.” When respected and “acted upon” instead of “acted out,” Cameron says, anger helps us find a way forward. So today, instead of stewing powerlessly on my anger and replaying this infuriating episode over and over again in my head, I’ve decided to write it out–what happened, and what I wish I had been able to say at the time. What I still want to say to the world.

Here it is, a poem mapping out my anger to put it to use:

Today I wear shorts

Today I wear shorts
Because the weather is warm.
Because I want to be free.
Because I have not felt the pleasure
of a temperate breeze
against my bare legs
since I bundled up last October.

And yes, because my legs are beautiful.
Because I am not ashamed of my body,
and because I have no reason
to hide my God-given limbs
from you or from anyone else.

And no, I do not owe you any explanation
for the shorts I wear today.
But it would appear that I do
need to explain the self-evident fact
that I am not wearing shorts
for you to take pictures of my ass
on your cellphone
while you wait in line for the bus
while my head is turned the other way
while another man loudly announces to me,
and to others,
what you are doing.

Perhaps, in the privacy of your addiction
you have seen so many women on the screen—
performing a false intimacy,
giving you something for nothing,
posing and moving as though they belong to you—
that you have forgotten:
we all belong to ourselves,
and you are not entitled
to my body or to anyone else’s.

Or perhaps, you have learned
to treat people like things
because this is the cycle
your own experience brings.

I’m sure that there are reasons,
but whatever they are,
none could constitute an excuse.
So stop.

The pixels in the big picture

28615442915_eae75e42bb_q

Helping families pick out second-hand cutlery and put together almost-matching sets of used living room furniture. Moving heavy boxes of someone else’s stuff until I’m left with sweat-stained armpits and regrets about my business casual decision that morning. Sitting in living rooms drinking tea, or sitting in high-rise law offices downtown—sometimes just observing the legal appointment, other times interpreting for the clients.

My job is an eclectic mixture of activities, many of them strange: I rummage through a cabinet of donated toys, looking for anything that isn’t gendered with an angry facial expression or the color pink, and wrap it for the birthday party we’ll hold that night. Or I sit with a grown woman and make up simple math problems with coins to help her learn to identify Canadian currency so she won’t get fired from her new job as a cashier. I once got lost inside a huge mall after going with a client to pay for another month of cell phone service so we could communicate about her appointments.

There are emails and letters to advocate for bank accounts to be opened, for exceptions to be made, for families to be reunited.  There are endless, tedious forms to be filled out for housing and status and permission to work. Sometimes when I make appointments to fill out this paperwork, I end up wondering how much more mindless admin I can stand, but other times the paperwork gets shoved aside for impromptu marriage counseling, or the sacred gift of a deeply-held story.

Sometimes, the absurdity of my work is in the wild swings between the momentous and the mundane. There is the day when we receive news that one of the refugee claimants whose deportation we had fought so hard to prevent had died halfway around the world. Tears. Staring at the floor. Feeling that powerless sadness and rage all over again. Ten minutes later, I am in my supervisor’s office discussing registration papers for a contraband kitten—the family it belongs to has already lost so much, and I am not about to let them lose the one cuddly thing that is going right in their lives because of technicality.

In this job, the big picture is the very exciting aim of extending radical welcome by journeying with people through the refugee claims process and through their first few months or years of creating a new life in a strange country. Close-up, this picture is made up of a billion tiny pixels of day-to-day, not-very-significant-feeling details. It’s made up of repetition. Of boredom, even. But I believe in the big picture, and there are times when I get to see the whole image reflected in the microcosm of a single moment or conversation. Those are the flashes of light that remind me where all of this is headed, and drum into my soul the long-resisted truth that small things with great love is the only greatness possible.

 

photo credit: brianfagan <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/52231465@N06/28615442915″>Week 30: Patterns</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>

Farmer Boy

In the year and a half since moving to Canada, much has changed for Andy and me and our lives look drastically different than they did in India. Yet I continue to be amazed by the threads of continuity woven into our story; the dreams planted in that season of life that continue to grow and bear fruit in unexpected ways even now. In India, our neighbors were village migrants who had reluctantly left their land to eke out a precarious existence in a polluted city with dropping water tables, and living alongside them sparked Andy’s interest in learning about sustainable agriculture to address poverty at the roots. Last month, that dream began to germinate when Andy got a job working for a small-scale farm just outside Vancouver!

I never pictured myself married to a farmer–though my first literary crush was Almanzo, the brave, resourceful protagonist of Farmer Boy from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books my mom used to read to my sister and me at bedtime. Years later, my farmer husband is  pursuing his dream of sustainable agriculture to address poverty at the roots. Andy has committed himself to learning the intricacies of nature and the wonder of humbly working alongside God to cultivate what we cannot manufacture. I could not be more proud of that [often rain-soaked] man in muddy boots who comes home exuberant after each day outside on the farm. Here he is, in his own words, explaining this new season of life:

One month ago, I quit my job in the city and became a farmer.

How did that happen?

It all began one sweltering afternoon two years ago, I was riding the public bus in India with my colleague, Govind. Reflecting on the challenges of doing community development in our city, Govind remarked that people in the villages were much more invested in their community and land than people in the slums. Living as squatters in the city, there was little incentive to invest long term in their communities or the land on which they lived. Our neighbors were further disempowered through the loss of family networks in the village, and they couldn’t use their agrarian expertise in the city—which meant they were usually left doing tedious, dangerous, and low-paying jobs to make ends meet.

Govind (on my left) and I facilitating a community meeting in India.

Govind’s comments reinforced the many conversations Trudy and I had with our neighbors in the slum, the vast majority of whom had recently migrated to the city due to lack of land security, land holdings that were too small for conventional agriculture, and declining soil productivity–all of which made it hard to earn a living as farmers, as their ancestors had done. Especially after visiting some of our friends’ home villages, I began to dream about doing community development work “further up stream” in an agrarian context, enabling farmers to make a meaningful choice about whether or not to move to the city.

A new season and a new community

While we were still in India, I was introduced to a Christian conservation organization called A Rocha, which seeks to show God’s love for all creation through hands-on conservation projects, environmental education programs, and sustainable agriculture initiatives. This includes restoring salmon habitat, training young scientists, inspiring school children, and providing fresh vegetables to low-income families. Love for people, place, and our planet are the threads that tie together and motivate A Rocha. A Rocha’s work is done in the context of community and with the aim of building bridges between people of diverse backgrounds as we all strive to care for—and be cared for by—the places we call home.

In February, I was hired as an Assistant Farm Manager with A Rocha’s Sustainable Agriculture program at the Brooksdale Environmental Centre in Surrey, BC. While getting my hands dirty (literally) with planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting, I’ll also be putting my business skills to use by selling our produce to restaurants and supporting A Rocha’s Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) Program, in which CSA members commit to the farm by paying in advance for a weekly harvest box. Throughout the growing season, they then enjoy produce that is healthy and fresh while getting to connect with the farmers who grow the food that they eat.  Our CSA program currently supplies about 100 shares, which fund the bulk of the program costs. The rest our budget comes from small grants, sales at market stands, and fundraising.

The farm team: me, master farmer Paul, and fellow assistant manager, Lindsay

Many people have expressed surprise when I tell them that I am working as a farmer.  I have never farmed, have always lived in cities (some of the largest and most crowded on earth!), and spent my university years studying international business.  And yet…  I have a deep desire to work with my hands, to grow real food, to learn about how to care for a piece of land (and it’s non-human inhabitants). I’m also excited to do all of this in the context of community, working alongside volunteers and interns who are also learning.  A Rocha’s Brooksdale Environmental Centre is just such a place: a living laboratory where people come together to learn about and experience the goodness of God’s creation. This is an opportunity to gather skills that I can use to help small-scale farmers steward their land well and avoid the trap of urban poverty that our neighbors experienced in India.

   

Growing a community of support

Each A Rocha staff person contributes to the financial sustainability of our work by fundraising a portion of their salary. Because you have followed my journey over the past few years as I have worked out my faith and vocation, I want to share this newest chapter of my journey with you and invite you to partner with me financially through a one time gift or a monthly donation. I am seeking to raise $500 per month. You can make your tax deductible donation online from Canada here, or from the U.S. here.
***
I’d love to hear any questions you may have about my work or about A Rocha’s vision, and I am excited to share my learnings on the farm with you as I discover how to labor alongside God in bringing goodness out of the soil. I don’t want to spam folks with emails, so if you’re interested in receiving quarterly updates, please take a moment to subscribe to my newsletter here.
   

A new year and a new job

It’s been a busy month and a half since I crossed the threshold from being eclectically-occupied-without-remuneration into the full-on, 9-to-5 work world. In December, I started a new job as a support worker with a small non-profit that serves refugee claimant families in the Vancouver area. I get to journey alongside families who have succeeded in their refugee claims (and some who are snagged in the lengthy appeals process) as they continue to navigate language learning, looking for work, and putting down roots in the soil of this strange country that is becoming home.

What does all of that look like in practical terms? Ironically, it looks a lot like what I was doing in India, except with more structure and more resources: my days are spent tracking down job opportunities, registering kids for school, celebrating birthdays, sharing home-cooked meals, and filling out paperwork for work permits, subsidized housing, income assistance. I fax and call and wade through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of automated answering systems to talk to government offices. I drive all over new streets with new people in my new-to-me car, trying to make it to appointments on time and without getting lost. I apply for legal aid, and exchange magic tricks with a bored fourth grader in the office while we wait with his parents. I drink sweetened coffee or green tea with cardamom in people’s living rooms and listen to stories—political histories of places I’ve never visited, and personal histories of the people who have been forced out of them.

The job has involved dusting off my Spanish, picking up some Kurdish, and enjoying the near-universal utility of the Arabic phrases my neighbors taught me in India: Asalaam-aleikum, Alhamdulillah, Khuda Hafiz. Peace to you. Praise God. May God be your Guardian.

Some days I marvel at the calm of a brave single mother in the midst of a storm, raising her children and calmly offering me cookies at her kitchen table while her husband waits on another continent to be able to join her. Other days I marvel at the injustice—and the absurdity—of a prosperous city in which parents work hard for years and still can’t afford market-rate rent for their families.

It strikes me that this job is a sort of second chance. I am filled with hope and energy as I connect with people, and as I channel my skills and effort into helping create a community of welcome and belonging for the strangers in our midst.  True, I can escape to a peaceful apartment at the end of each day, but again, I find myself in the situation of befriending people whose struggles and stories refuse to be contained in any professional office space or business hours. I bring those stories home with me and I think about them and I care. Again, I find myself with a finger on the pulse of pain and dislocation in our world, too close to ever forget about the bloodshed and trauma and loss that haunt the lives of so many.

It also strikes me that this job is a sort of test. How well have I learned to care for myself? How much respect have I gained for my own limits, and how well can I separate my identity from my success in meeting others’ expectations? Can I love without losing myself this time? I wonder. Passionately throw myself behind a cause without burning out? 

They’re the kinds of questions which can’t be answered apart from being lived. So with all my apprehension and excitement, I continue along this path that leads me through déjà vu and new territory at the same time. I can sense how far I have come and yet how very far I have to go, but for now, my heart is filled with gratitude for yet another spiral in this healing journey.

 

Refugee claimant

The Longest Night of the Year

the longest night of the year

photo credit: Adam Hill (http://www.adamhillstudios.ca/)

Last night I attended a special service at my church known as “The Longest Night of the Year,” or “Blue Christmas,” when we as a community remember those for whom this season is marked by grief rather than celebration. We make space to bring our unfulfilled longings, losses, and pain into the open instead of hiding them behind any kind of festive veneer, and we sings songs that are full of both sorrow and hope.

The room was dark except for a few radiant candles. Sometimes the room was filled with beautiful, gentle music; other times it was hushed and still. We passed around a fresh cedar bough–a symbol of cleansing and healing–and as each person held it in their hands, they were invited to name their sadness aloud or take a moment of silence to bring it to mind. Then they would pass the fragrant branch to the person beside them and we would all speak over them, “Oh God, surround them in your love.”

Many of us shed tears, but it was not a depressing atmosphere. It was honest and sad, but hopeful. We believed that Jesus is coming, and that he has come–that Jesus is with us now. I believe that many of us left feeling both stronger and more vulnerable than when we came in. (At least, that’s how it was for me.) That space was holy. I cannot think of a better way to observe Advent.

Earlier this week, I wrote a reflection on grieving with hope for SheLoves Magazine’s Advent series. It’s a brief meditation on one of the lesser-known women in the Christmas story, and what it means to celebrate the light even while we are surrounded by darkness:

“Women figure prominently in the story of Jesus’ birth. From an early age, I learned about Mary’s unwavering trust in God, and her courage; I was told about Elizabeth’s joy at the fulfillment of a dream she had long since abandoned. Yet as an adult, I find that the most haunting female presence in the story is a woman I never learned about during my childhood—a woman who technically wasn’t even there…”

Head on over to SheLoves Magazine to read the rest.

Glimpses of the Kingdom

This is the second week of Advent, the season of waiting for Christ to come to us in the midst of our darkness. Having spent the last several years getting to know people in poverty and on the margins of society, I am pretty much constantly aware of that darkness, and it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the light altogether. That’s why I want to hold onto any glimpses I catch of the kingdom slowly but surely breaking in, and I want to share a few of them here.

I recently completed a three-month volunteer training with Battered Women’s Support Services here in Vancouver, where my fellow trainees were a group of brave women with beautiful, compassionate hearts. Most of those women don’t identify as people of faith, but I felt the presence of God in the midst of the safe and loving community we built together. That strong sense of community was absolutely vital during the twelve intense weeks we spent staring injustice and violence in the face and sharing some very raw pieces of our own stories.  Exploring the ugliness of the world with a bunch of people who are committed to doing something about it helps keep my hope alive, and reminds me that there is strength in our shared vulnerability as human beings.

I’ve now begun fielding calls on the crisis line. From police to hospitals to courts, it’s been sobering to realize how often the systems that have been set up to protect the vulnerable actually let people slip through the cracks–or worse, further traumatize and isolate them. Sometimes, people struggling with mental health issues are given criminal records instead of help. Sometimes women are arrested for defending themselves against abusive partners while the men who batter them go free. I know this now, not only through statistics or reading articles or listening to experts talk about it, but from speaking to these women on the phone.  All too often, factors such as race, income level, and immigration status determine whether or not a woman will get the help she needs.

Volunteering with BWSS has been a steep learning curve, and the stories of violence and abuse that I have been hearing over the phone are heartbreaking. Yet I also feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the chance to support these brave, resilient women in resisting violence and pursuing lives of dignity and safety.  I am humbled by their tenacity in working against staggering odds to reclaim their own identities and the lives and to heal from trauma.

In other news, I’ve just landed my first paid job in Canada! Yesterday, I accepted a position working directly with refugee claimants: people who have fled their countries of origin because of violence or persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a particular social group. In contrast to privately-sponsored or government-assisted refugees, refugee claimants undertake their dangerous journey without knowing whether or not they will be granted asylum when they reach their destination. They often face detention upon arrival, and the months-long refugee claims process that follows can be a stressful and scary time while claimants struggle to navigate an unfamiliar system, gather evidence for their case, and wait for their fate to be decided by the powers that be.

My job will bring me into contact with families at all stages of this process, but my main responsibility will be to support those whose refugee claims have recently been approved, journeying alongside them as they begin the process of integrating into the local community and helping them to find employment.

I start tomorrow, and I can’t wait. In the face of all the violence and hateful rhetoric lately, I am beyond thrilled to be able to extend the welcome of Christ to refugee claimants from around the world—Muslim and otherwise—who have come to this country seeking safety. I look forward to all of the beautiful people I will meet, and to all the ways they are sure to challenge and humble me and force me to grow, causing me to see more (and differently) than I did before.

I give thanks for every step a woman takes towards freedom and safety. I give thanks for every refugee’s safe arrival, and every successful application for asylum.  I celebrate every small victory for justice in our world, and I recognize Christ’s coming in our midst. Still, I wait impatiently in the dark, willing these pin-prick stars to turn into daylight.

God, be born in our hearts. In our fractured world, let us be the midwives of goodness and truth coming into being.

Good News to the Poor: What I Learned From an 80-year-old Nun in India.

P1070648

During the time I lived in the slum, I sometimes interacted with other Christians who viewed Muslims as spiritual projects. They were confused about why I would choose to live with people in poverty and/or people of another religion for any reason other than to use cloak-and-dagger evangelism to convert them.  If I responded that following Jesus compelled me to love my neighbors and seek to work for justice alongside them, other Christians sometimes concluded that all that neighborly love must be a way of warming up the crowd for the REAL message of Jesus later, and it seemed impossible to explain that–as far as I was concerned–love, justice, community, and belonging in God’s family WERE the message.

At a time when these sorts of conversations had left me feeling discouraged and misunderstood, I met an octogenarian nun with a crinkly face and a compassionate heart. Her understanding of my strange life was a much-needed comfort at the time, and to this day I continue to unpack the wisdom she shared with me in our conversations under the neem trees.  This month, I got to write about my friendship with her in an online article for Plough Quarterly. Here’s an excerpt:

“There were the unjust laws and corrupt officials. There was drought and impoverished soil in the villages our neighbors hailed from, where fields could not be endlessly subdivided between generations of sons. The education and healthcare systems were inadequate. And among those we got to know, malnutrition, family cycles of violence, and psychological trauma all took their toll. Generations of discrimination too often meant that people in poverty didn’t expect much from themselves.

We were discouraged not only by the enormity of the problems faced by our neighbors, but also by the church’s failure to respond. Of the local Christians with whom we interacted, many seemed focused on a “spiritual” agenda – gathering adherents – though to be sure, they had material concerns as well: maintaining historical church buildings and air-conditioned auditoriums…”

Head on over to Plough to read the rest!