Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Week In The Life: Wednesday

All mornings have their bright spots...for those of you thinking that I'm pointing out the obvious, no, I'm not referring to the sun.

Most days, the good days, start with a small cluster of oh-so-special children that race towards my roommate and I as we near the school. They usually wait at one of a few different points along the road so they can be the first to greet us, and also receive a few extra minutes of undivided (albeit rather sleepy) attention. On this particular morning, I also achieved some level of enlightenment in addition to my morning hug.

Passion and I were holding a fairly one-sided conversation (mostly her side, that is) when we reached the stretch of road that is lined by bushes bearing small red berries, which are an extremely popular morning snack for our kids. On previous mornings, I had politely declined a sample. But this morning, Passion had prepared a most convincing argument.

"Miss Courtney, these give you energy. And they help you do karate so you can be a ninja," she said. And then I responded with two words that I'm sure many adults have used before me, and will use for countless years to come. "Oh really??" I asked with an amused smirk.

According to my young ninja prodigy, this tidbit of information was nagged from another boy in our school, Nissi, who always practices his expert karate skills in the yard after watching Jackie Chan movies. She told me that he told her that these berries were the key to his seemingly natural abilities. I was assured that they will provide me with a similar success story. So we looked for the dark pink ones, which are the best ones of course, and I took a small leap of faith. I was rewarded with a bite of what is essentially sour Styrofoam. What bizarre things, these ninja berries.

I am saddened to admit that I was not immediately visited by this fabled ninja berry magic. However, I couldn't resist telling Passion the following morning that I barely got any sleep at all, because I was so busy doing karate all night. "I toooooollld you Miss Courtney," she said, like she had just gotten proof of Santa Claus by waking up to presents, an empty plate minus a few missed crumbs, and a half-eaten carrot. Lord, I apologize for this mild extension of the truth. But, in all fairness, she lied to me first. Ninja berries. Ridiculousness.

Anyway, on we went to school.

It's interesting how comfortable that gym, those desks, my tea mug, can make me feel. We struggle through each day, truly. But each day God eases me into the place that I know He had prepared for me long ago.

Today I had my students put the final touches on the poster that we have been working on as a class. At the top is our scripture, Jeremiah 29:11-13, " 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.' " Their handprints fill in the spaces everywhere else. One hand holds their fears, and the things holding them back. The other hand holds their hopes, dreams, and desires for the future. The cross stands between the two, representing how we erase our fears by replacing them with the plans God has for us. After that, I had them each complete the following sentences on the poster: "God is..." and "God made me..." Then, amid much laughter about proper placement, we hung up our poster as a class.

Underneath, I hung their 'Dream Sheets.' On the first week of school, a Friday to be exact, we left school and walked to a local church where the pastor was waiting to usher us through the open doors. There we talked about what we want to accomplish as a class, through service projects and work experience. On the back of recycled paper, each student drew a chart with a Community section, a World section, and a Future section.

Each Friday, we will use part of the day to open their eyes to something new in the community. Last week, we went to the local township's Disability Center where the kids played simplified versions of soccer and netball with the people there. I was unbelievably proud of them. The week before, we visited the town library, discussed the genres of books, played a few word related games, and left with our backpacks significantly heavier. We have also had a meeting with the aforementioned pastor, in which he spent two hours sharing his testimony and answering questions about doing ministry. On Fridays, the kids will be also be able to gain practical experience, through life skills training and things of that nature. They all included possible service opportunities and job interests in their Community section, and our hope is that eventually those experiences will be able build the bridge into the World section and propel them forward into their dreams for the future. To be honest, it's so nice to have all of that hanging on the walls. It definitely puts things into perspective when I'm on the verge of getting frustrated or shutting off...that wall holds precious dreams that are worth fighting for.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Week In The Life: Tuesday

Before I start, allow me to set the scene. It's late Monday night and quickly approaching early Tuesday morning. I was laying in the darkness, trying to take deep breaths to keep the stress at bay, and I could hear our mouse boldly sniffing around the room (Let the records show that he's not stealthy at all. He has actually climbed onto my dinner plate when I set it on the floor for a moment, and he didn't even have the decency to look guilty about it.) Before long, I started to feel overwhelmed and the tears just starting prickling, then they started gathering, and then they started spilling over. Soon after I started turning my stress into liquid form, my roommate attempted a graceful trip in the pitch black to the restroom, and succeeded on the way out. On the way back in, however, she accidentally bumped into the stool where I have been keeping all my hoarded dirty dishes. Luckily nothing broke but I know, I have a problem. Anyways, I heard a sniffle. Then when she got up to her top bunk, I heard another sniffle. So of course I asked what was wrong. Silence. Sniffle. "Are you cryyyyiinng??" I asked. I heard a faint "mhmm." Pause. Then I started laughing. "Me too!!" I said, still giggling. It didn't take long before we were both cracking up. The lights went on, we got some music going, and we whipped out the Old Maid for a few intense rounds. There was also a miniature dance party that mostly consisted of me showcasing my moves accompanied by my scarf. We also briefly discussed breaking something but we can't afford that, so we decided to talk awhile before attempting the whole sleep thing again. So basically, I danced my way into Tuesday.

Five hours later, I was really wishing that I had the foresight to take sleeping pills instead of trying to remedy my insomnia with card games. Live and learn I guess. Well, our impromptu midnight rendezvous also affected my roomie Lucia, because she was essentially mute for the first two hours after rising. She was showing a few signs of life, thankfully, and I got a grunt or two at some point. Well then off we went school.

I understand that with every job, some weeks are hard. And some days inside those weeks feel more or less impossible. Perhaps this seems a bit dramatic, but God dragged me through the day. Some of the kids literally seem to get their slates wiped clean each night. One girl called me over, pointed to her page, and swore she had never seen a problem like that before, even though a few days prior she had successfully completed multiple pages identical to it after extensive explanation. These are the days when I can't deny that this is beyond my abilities as an imperfect, unqualified teacher. There is no limit to how many times I will explain things, nor is there a limit to how many smiles I can give them, simply because I know they're struggling far more than me. At the moment when I think I will stumble over another explanation, or my smile will falter, God fills my heart with the image of them leaned over their desk, furiously erasing and writing, erasing and rewriting, erasing and staring at their smudged pages. He breaks my heart for them and gives me the will to fight for them. Thanks to God, I got through.

Following dismissal at two, my five older girls joined me by the stage. The Jehovah Shalom Mission School is located in the gym of the Alexandria Christian Academy so our amazing principal has joined our two schools on Thursday mornings for a group devotion. On each one of these mornings, the students are encouraged to prepare devotions for their classmates. My girls wanted to go this week, and they really wanted to perform the Everything skit by Lifehouse (I recommend Googling the original if you aren't familiar with it!). Today was our first practice, and we had two boys from ACA helping us put it together. Rehearsal went along splendidly and even though I was exhausted, I was feeling very uplifted as well.

We walked the girls back across Alexandria to Jehovah Jireh Haven where Abby, Lucia, and I went in for a quick round of hugs and kisses.

And then, it was back home. Chicken noodle soup for dinner, along with a few episodes of The Mentalist from my computer. I do believe I earned the right to be a little lazy, although I had the best intentions to do more with my afternoon...but alas, bed just seemed like the more favorable option. Forgive me for getting off schedule!

And as usual, please keep us in your prayers!

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Week In The Life: Monday

Today's weather eerily marked the passage of my spirit. The sun rose this morning with a vengeance, scattering the shadows that night had left behind. A cool breeze lifted the hair off my neck and then it seemed to move through me, spreading peace as it went. The day slowly darkened as clouds moved in. Soon the wind rocked the trees and the harsh, pounding lines of rain contrasted with the branches swaying back and forth. Then I saw perfect sunbeams breaking through the clouds and suddenly the sky transformed into falling reflections of light. It was stunning. God is an artist.

My Monday began with a mosquito bite. To beat of the steady vibrations of my wretched 5:50 a.m. phone alarm, I slapped it 6 times like Mom taught me instead of scratching. It didn't exactly do much to stop the itching but it did wake me up a little, which on a Monday morning is something to be cherished. My dear little roommate Lucia and I left the house a tad bit after 7:15 and began the trek up the hill and down the road to the school. We quickly made some last minute preparations before eight little heads ducked and weaved their way into the Learning Center. Monday mornings are for our group assembly, in which we have one big devotion instead of three separate ones. However, there was a significant percentage of our school's population still missing..Apparently one girl's school shirt had not been washed that weekend and so all were recruited to find a clean one, in addition to morning chores. Nevertheless, we were complete soon enough and the words of South Africa's National Anthem echoed throughout the large gym acting as our school.

The rest of the day unfortunately followed suit. The children really struggled, I'm sad to say. There were more than a few tears, a few more unintentional naps, and a lot of tension. Every day naturally holds unexpected challenges that we aren't always equipped for. Despite that, we get ourselves and our little ones through each moment with the help of grace, tea, and countless prayers for wisdom, strength, and anything else God feels like handing out.

On the walk home, my mind was more crowded than an African taxi that had picked up every Mama from here to Cape Town. That's really, really crowded. Like really. Really, really. Really. You get the idea. I walked in through the side door, since the door we usually use was accidentally padlocked with a padlock that we don't have a key for (whoops) and I headed straight for my room to call my dad. With his advice in my back pocket, I settled in for the night. I watched the rain for awhile, made a quesadilla with imitation tortillas, and turned on the geyser to heat up water for showers...since showers are good...Now here I sit. 9:02 p.m. My iTunes is on shuffle, because occasionally I get a good laugh out of certain random songs. I have Delicious-But-Not-As-Good-As-Granny's cup of tea sitting on the bar stool from the kitchen that has taken up residence next to my bed. The fan is on to make it harder for the mosquitoes to fly straight in my direction, but they usually find a way regardless. The fan is also the reason I'm wearing long pajama pants and a sweatshirt in the middle of an African summer. You guys don't judge though, right?!

Well, goodnight one and all. Please keep our kids in your prayers tonight.

P.S. If anyone would like a specific name and prayer request, just say so. I will happily send you five!!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Week In The Life: Sunday

This morning started with an aggravating imitation of a storybook cock-doodle-doo from a rooster who will soon feed a family if he doesn't get the hint that not only does he anger me in the early A.M., but the thought of him angers me at any old time of the day. Some mornings he finds different people to tick off but this morning, he fixed his beady eye on my part of the house. So at 5:12 I forcefully tossed my blankets off me, causing them to twist in true Kansas Tornado fashion. After a little over 30 seconds spent groping around for the doorknob, I turned back for my glasses. Then, at last reunited with my vision, I went off to find that trespassing pest.

There he was in the yard, surrounded by a few hens who by God's grace endure his endless squawking day after day. I looked down and saw a little rock perfectly suited for my purpose. I picked it up and threw be honest with ya'll, I have no excuse for how pathetically far away that rock was from my target, since I got new glasses a few months ago. It may be due to the fact that my sister took all my athletic genes, in addition to her own. Or perchance because the last throwing sport in which I was engaged was 2nd grade softball, unless the food fight for my 16th birthday party counts. Regardless, I felt compelled to try to redeem myself particularly since the rooster hadn't yet noticed the change in scenery. My next rock at least got his attention, I am proud to say, and he moved a few hesitant steps away in a westward direction. Or maybe I was eastward, northward, or even southward...heck if I know. I never did get around to Boy Scouts. Anyways, it gave me hope.

Picking up the next rock I regretfully got a bit of dirt beneath my nails and for a moment I faltered before regaining my Stone Cold Hunter mindset. And then I launched my missile of revenge.....To break the suspense, I'll just tell you that I didn't exactly make contact. BUT my special little rock made a satisfactory thunk, and that got bird-brain moving. Then a strong feeling of awkwardness struck. Our house sits on a corner, a corner subject to much traffic. Thankfully no one was there to witness my disheveled display of desperation. So then, a triumphant return to bed followed by a few more hours of blessedly undisturbed sleep. Then I woke up and read my Bible. And then prayed that God would kill the rooster in a quick lightening storm. Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy. I may have also reminded him that people around here love fried chicken, but the closest KFC is 40 minutes away. Hence my brilliant solution. But apparently He has different plans for the little turd, that are greater than mine. Even though I still think my plan was pretty great.

When I finally rolled out of bed, rooster free, and clumped to the kitchen for tea and my daily bowl of Bran cereal there sat two of my fellow teachers and a most adorable married couple, Adam and Abby. They live in the little flat connected to our part of the house, but due to the two mattresses in our living room, I accurately assessed that they had joined us for the night. Why? Well, after a mini roadtrip up to East London on Friday to pick up their new car (New, as in old, but new for them. For the record.) and a sleepover with the Agee family, they arrived home here on Saturday night only to discover that Adam's bag, accidentally left behind in the Agee household, also had their keys to the flat. So, instead of beating the padlocks off the door, Abby decided to spend the night on our floor and then make the two hour trip up to East London this morning for the second time in three days. Erika, a temporary teacher who's with us for a few more weeks, coincidentally needed a ride up to East London because she is joining up with a small team headed to Transkei for the week. With 15 minutes to spare, I decided to join in for no other reason than to get out of town. Off we went, soon stopping at a gas station where I ran in to buy wings in the form of Red Bull. Sufficiently pumped full of caffeine, we rocked out to some good tunes and enjoyed the scenery. Upon arriving at the Agee's house, I was presented with Dr. Pepper that Adam and Abby had bought me, and left in the Bag-That-Caused-Much-Trouble. I sat in silence and tasted heaven. Then we went on an outing to a restaurant on the beach. Good food. Good beer. Good company.

All in all, it was a day of excellent conversation, great people, and really really really amazing beverages.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Art of Peaceful Restlessness

We walked in human sandwich formation towards the open grass where the 23 other children were already playing. Shalom clung to my left, scowling as she explained the sore on her forehead where chemicals burned her when one of the older kids clumsily attempted to relax her hair. On my right, with her face pressed into the fabric of my shirt, Passion chattered happily about how many friends she has. “It’s easy to make friends Miss Courtney.  You just have to put your biggest smile on and be really, really nice when they ask your name,” she explained to me. I quieted them both by asking them if they like their new school. They peeked at each other around me with slightly tangible sibling tension, and actually agreed on something for once in the years I have known them. They both love it. With the grace of a pregnant elephant, Shalom informed me that everyone thought this school would be sooooo lame before. I must have given her a wounded look because she hurriedly soothed me in her unadulterated, adorably strong Afrikaans accent. “But don’t worry Miss Courtney, we love it here. Yes. I walk so fast to school every morning and I don’t want to leave….I love it so much. There are no words for how much I love it.” With that final sentence, the stress of my first week as an entirely unqualified teacher, the weight of carrying so many young dreams on my shoulders, and the pressing doubts about every breath I have taken for the past month were swept away into God’s hands.

So now here I sit, the remains of a chocolate bar on one side and pieces of notebook paper from my students on the other side, holding the precious responses to the scripture we chose for them this month, Jeremiah 29:11-13. On top of the pile is a written prayer from one of the most sincere humans I have ever met. It says, “Thank you Lord for your word that is so true to me. Thank you for your promise for you say that you have a plan for me and I know and I believe in you for you are a good God and my dreams are safe in your hand and you will never bring me disaster but a future full of hope since I see myself living in your will. I see nothing but the best and happiness, love, joy, peace, and thankfulness. Amen.” Another from a very determined little lady says, “Thank you Lord for giving me and everyone on Earth a plan and a purpose for our lives. Lord I also thank you for giving me the chance to reach my goals. I also want to thank you for all the dreams you have given me, and if it’s your will I would like to become a singer because you have given me the gift of singing and I am willing to show the world the gift that you have given me.” Another from a very bright young man says, “If we don’t know Jesus, there will come a time when we get to search for Him and we will find Him for our future is in His hands and without Him, we have no future, because He alone knows the plans He has for us.”
I was beyond filled with pride this week as watched my class of 9 diligently and gratefully struggle through the introduction of a very complicated set of procedures. To briefly explain what I mean by that, our  school, the Jehovah Shalom Mission School, is using a home-schooling curriculum adapted to accommodate students world-wide. Every lesson is presented in a format that almost entirely consists of individualized learning. Students are expected to set their own goals every day, in regards to how many pages in each subject they plan to complete. There are a series of checks and balances throughout each packet, called a PACE, that ensure each child receives personal attention, instruction, and encouragement while also safeguarding against the education policy many of their previous schools enforced which consisted of ‘If you understand it, great. If not, move along.’ My class is the group of older children, ages 15-19. We are starting many of them on coursework far below the grade they are supposed to be in according to chronological age. The idea is that if they understand the material, they will move through each level very quickly and they thrive in the system. If there are major gaps in their learning, the discrepancies will be filled until they too are able to catch up. For one girl in particular, this school is her last chance to gain any necessary skills for the outside world. She is almost 20, less than one year younger than me. For whatever reason, she cannot yet read. She has the most inspiring attitude about it all, keeping a smile even though she is working on the same activities as the 8-year-olds who wiggle and waggle about in the adjoining desks.
However, beyond the schoolwork, the Jehovah Shalom Mission School has given us all an amazing opportunity to break the cycle with this group of kids. I wish I had words to describe the bizarre feelings of peace and restlessness that fill me when I take a moment in the middle of my day to look around me at the heads bent low, when I embrace the children who have faithfully entrusted us with their future. Thank you Lord for this day. Thank you Lord for the love flooding my heart every moment. Thank you Lord for the beautiful faces that fill my thoughts and my dreams.  Thank you Lord, thank you.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Burden of Angels

The gates of Jehovah Jireh Haven part like the gates of Heaven, complete with a chorus of angels singing my name. I must admit though, I never got around to imagining my Heaven with four Great Danes parting the crowds to wet-nose at any spare limb for their slice of attention…or that all those baby angels would like to pick off my toe nail polish when I stood still for but a second…or that God would allow games of Toilet Tag, Extreme Rock Paper Scissors, and Simon Says to disturb His peace. But so what?! It turns out the aforementioned additions to my previously imagined Heaven are, in fact, remarkable improvements.

Unfortunately, reality brings me back to Earth long before I’m ready. I feel their sweet little arms tighten around my neck in a sticky embrace and my heart clumsily stumbles over the knowledge that on those darling shoulders the weight of the world once rested, for however brief a time. The unbalanced burden of a child’s wisdom; knowing that nights are always scariest when his shadow enters her room and into her bed, but not knowing why it feels so wrong when he says it’s right. Knowing that the hunger hurts, that the thirst pains, and the heart aches, but not knowing if it was deserved, from where it came, or when it will ever end. It is a deep understanding of suffering without comprehension of how or why.

Jesus took the weight of our world’s sin on His back that one day. The deepest trespasses committed by the souls of the past, present, and future pulled Him down into the dark mires of death, where the purest of sacrifices was made. But I believe some people reject that gift of love. Love is never lost, no, but Satan closes hearts to hope and forgiveness. His greatest victory lies in contorting love, leaving it malnourished and withering in the depths of a desperate soul. It is when those people, those hurting, broken people, do not allow Jesus to carry this burden that the weight falls onto the ones Jesus always lifted the highest. My darling little sweethearts stumble under the suffocating darkness that is thrust into their innocent light. My heart cries out with grief when my fingers clutch at the babies with dead eyes and broken spirits, when I cling to them while flinging out prayers in every direction. The weight of their fathers’, mothers’, brothers’, sisters’, uncles’, and neighbors’ sin could not be supported by their tiny, precious shoulders.  The great burden of it all simply caved in on their sweet spirits…but just when I begin to feel the chill that travels deep into my core in the face of such pain, there is a stirring in that baby’s eyes. A stirring of hope, a lingering connection to the light. A little dimple caused by a little smile. A squeeze between small cold fingers and big warm ones. A tired head rested for a moment on a willing shoulder.

That’s all it takes for me. I certainly cannot hold that weight on my shoulders even though I desire deeply to take it away from those babies. My babies. There is only one true hope, one true light, one true love, one true God. And He is the only one who can release us from all we try to carry around. We have to give it to Him, simple as that.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


There is a point in each passing moment of joy where my eyes overflow with unspoken love. Tears blur the world around me as I feel a distinct pressure in my chest where bounding laughter pushes at the scarred walls of my heart, making room for happiness I never thought I deserved. In the past few months, my soul has found its way from the suffocating darkness of despair to the humbling honor of undeserved grace and second chances. I now find solace in the collective burden of this life, knowing that I hold the knowledge of an immortal message in a dismally mortal world.
            I still feel a distinct sting of pain when I partially transport myself to the state of my life at the beginning of my internship with Mission Adelante. I had resigned myself to the suffocating chains of discontent, deception, and my own weakness. I allowed the lies of the world to infiltrate my very being, disguising the truth and the light. I simply lost my way. I was entrenched in the shadows of my past and my ever-tortuous present. I had no way forward and no way back…
I have very few words to explain the impact of my time at Mission Adelante because when I pause to think, I am overwhelmed by an indistinguishable wave of emotion. I am powerless to fight the tide or make sense of everything washing over me. I do know one thing for certain, however; it is no coincidence that Mission Adelante means Mission “Go Forth.” My time there opened the path to God’s plan in my life and gave me the courage to forge onward. I was taught to lay down the burden of my mistakes and instead, find a place for the lessons learned in my next few steps. And now, instead of guilt and regret, I have the honor of forever carrying in my heart the love of the darling children who saved my life.
           An African mama once shared in a few words the wisdom of a lifetime with my father: “I have seen many men die pregnant with great dreams,” she warned. “Don’t be one of them.” I realized I do not have to stand by and watch while innocent lives crumbled under the rule of poverty, prejudice, and pain. I should not feel guilty that the hand of fate provided me the privilege of education or a stable family; but if I fail to use that privilege to make even a small, dusty, forgotten corner of the world a brighter place then, and only then, do I have something to feel truly guilty about. Nothing but society tells me that I should content myself with what I have been given and settle into the routine of Suburbia. Nothing but the bitter ghosts of my past tell me that instead of soaring among the stars I should lay myself on the cold ground with my eyes on the sky, forever waiting for someone, something, to lift me up. I realize that no longer can I hold parts of my heart for myself; it belongs, and will forever belong, to the collective soul of this world. It is the people across the nations, now holding its pieces, who lead me.