youth ministry

You are Also a Living Thing

I work primarily with teenagers, and so I spend a lot of time hearing about, thinking about, and talking about bodies.

Young people are inundated with social media messages about what they’re supposed to look like, like all of us are, and are put under constant pressure to put images of themselves online for their peers’ consumption. Most of that sounds familiar to us as adults, except that teenagers are going through it while puberty is meanwhile making them feel like they are living in a stranger’s house. They wake up in this skin, like a body-snatcher, walking around in someone else’s suddenly too big feet.

So, I wanted to speak to teenagers, and to all of us who feel unsure, ambivalent, or even loathsome, towards these bundles of sinews and tendons and veins that we call home:

You deserve to exist simply because you were created. There is nothing you have to do or accomplish or become to deserve to take up the space you are sitting in. Take a deep breath. Feel your lungs fill, listen to your heart beat. Clench your fists and feel the muscles and sinews in your hands. Exhale, loosen your grip and notice the way your skin stretches around your fingers. Wiggle your toes, roll your neck. All of this is a part of you.

So when you hate this, when you starve it, cut it, stand in front of a mirror and pinch and pull at it and call it disgusting, inadequate, not enough, when you carve it up to make it acceptable to others, when you pathologize its normal variances, diagnose every flaw, seek to purge it of all about it that you find unacceptable… that matters. This is the only body you will ever have. And it belongs to you. God entrusted you to care for it, to have stewardship for it. In Genesis, God gives us humans dominion, stewardship, the responsibility for every living thing.

You are also a living thing.

And more than your pets, or your plants, or your family members, your children, or your parents, this is the living thing you are the most responsible for taking care of. And like your pets, your plants, your family members, “taking care of” doesn’t mean obsessing over to tweak it to peak performance, it doesn’t mean bullying it into perfection. It means to love it, just as it is right now, listen to it, give it what it needs, and learn where God is at work in it.

It isn’t your fault you have struggled with your body. There are entire systems in our world that are set up around the hierarchy of bodies, of determining exactly who is worth more than who. Systems around gender, skin color, disability, illness, sexuality, age, body size, that can give you an exact placement on a ranking of human worth. That system, and any system that asserts that some bodies are worth more than other bodies, is sin. It isn’t your fault you’ve evaluated yourself so harshly, you were taught to. When we can reject that system, though, we not only free ourselves, we make others around us more free as well, and we make the world more like the one God intended. But I won’t pretend it’s easy, we’re all on the path of unlearning our whole lives.

So all I can ask is this, to begin with this countercultural act: to have grace for the skin and bones you’ve been given. To forgive them for not being perfect, and take a moment to be grateful for the fact that you’re alive.

When you feel tempted to hate this body you’ve been given, to measure it up compared to other people’s, I want you to do a couple things for me:

  • First, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and remember that you’re alive. Your body has done that.
  • When you are tempted to negative self-talk, replace the “I’s” you’re wanting to say with the name of another living thing you care for – pet, friend, family member who you love. See if it is still something you want to say.
  • Help each other out. Don’t create more of the same problem bringing others down to assuage your own insecurity. Don’t shame people who are smaller than you, or bigger than you, and help remind each other of your own worth. If it seems like someone is struggling, don’t appease them with “oh my god, no you’re so skinny” – actually talk to them about how their feeling, and remind them that their body is so much more that what other people think of it.

Have grace for the skin and bones that you live in. Treat them with love and respect. Eat vegetables, exercise, go on walks, if you want to, and have a donut when you want one, not because of how it will make you look, but because you deserve a reminder that you’re alive.

This is the only body you will ever have. You have been entrusted to take care of it and love it, and live in it. Don’t hate it, hurt it, and continue to perpetuate the myth of a ladder of human worth. He, she, they is always and already enough and is just waiting for you to make up your mind on whether you will love them back.

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Life Along the Way, youth ministry

The Six-Month Wall

Originally Posted here.

“I’ve had crazy crap erupt all around me the last few days. What’s in the water? Things that should be easy are melting down.”

— First Church Clergyperson, Name Redacted

This week, on top of the text message above from a colleague, I’ve gotten calls from three other youth pastor friends telling stories of being blindsided by parents making totally out of character demands and ultimatums, and a teacher friend told me they flipped over a stool in their classroom this week in frustration.

I also watched my own team struggle to get through the week, parents mentally dis-integrate over seemingly small inconveniences, and a school board meeting turn fiery and drag out until 4:00 am over when to return in-person. It left me wondering the same question my colleague texted me — what is happening?

May I present what I spent a lot of time this past week learning about: the six-month wall. The six-month wall is a phenomenon apparently well known to aid workers, trauma specialists, and professionals who work with or around persistent acute crises.

According to Professor Aisha Ahmad, quoted in Forbes about the phenomenon, it’s one of the most predictable parts of a crisis, even for her personally:

The six-month mark in any sustained crisis is always difficult. We have all adjusted to this “new normal,” but might now feel like we’re running out of steam. Yet, at best, we are only one third of the way through this marathon. How can we keep going? First, in my experience, this is a very normal time to struggle or slump. I *always* hit a wall six months into a tough assignment in a disaster zone. The desire to “get away” or “make it stop” is intense. I’ve done this many times, and at 6 months, it’s like clockwork”.

The six-month wall is here, friends, and it is not pretty. So, what’s happening, physically and psychologically, that’s causing the wheels to come flying off in so many areas of our lives? According to experts (and this excellent article by Tara Haelle) its about the depletion of our surge capacity — our capacity to utilize physical and psychological coping mechanisms, alternate energy sources, and resiliency reserves to sustain us through the up-ending of our daily lives and shifting uncertain reality of our present. This capacity was developed to help us survive hurricanes that destroy our homes, to push us through from crisis into cleaning up and rebuilding.

But what happens when the hurricane just keeps coming? How do we start to clean up when the wind is still ripping the windows off the shutters? And what difference does it make that, unlike a hurricane, we can’t look out the window and see the results of what has happened – that the damage is invisible, catastrophic, and ongoing?

Perhaps the biggest casualty of the invisibility of this crisis is that it tricks us into thinking we should be fine. We believe, because we aren’t sick, because working from home is a possibility, because we still can work, we’re fortunate (and we are), and we’re used to this reality, and that we should be fine.

So we’re frustrated that we’re not.

In my experience of the past two weeks, and in the experience of the youth pastors, clergy people, and teachers who make up most of my social circle, this leads people to lash out at anyone in arms reach and to try to exert some kind of control over any aspect of their lives they think they can make any headway on. I can’t speak for what the six-month wall looks like in traditional corporate America, or inside families with children at home, or in retail or service environments, and I am confident those worlds have capacities and struggles I know nothing about, but from where I stand, it feels like the seams are ripping out. Maybe it feels like that to you, too.

So what do we do? How do we scale the six-month wall? Well according to Professor Ahmad, there’s good news and bad news,

“The wall is real and normal. And frankly, it’s not productive to try to ram your head through it. It will break naturally in about four to six weeks if you ride it out.”

Bad news, we can’t magic it away. Good news, it will break, probably sometime around early November. At that point, we’ll be looking at a holiday season very different than what we’re used to, so that will have its own challenges, but this slump, this malaise, which Haelle describes as an “anxiety-tinted depression” will play itself out on its own.

In the meantime? First, lower your expectations of yourself and those around you. A year ago this time, I would lose sleep over any program not going well – right now, I would say about 2/3 of what we’re doing is going well, and I’ve decided that’s a pretty good proportion to shoot for. If we can keep tweaking and re-working and get from 2/3 to 3/4, that’s great, but maybe a batting average of .67 isn’t bad this year.

Second, find new sources of joy. Brene Brown in her podcast this week, recommends creating a “Play List” — a list of activities that are fun and serve no explicit purpose – along with your family and carving out time to spend on them. Play, joy, the reminders of the glory of being alive, is one of the best ways we can survive the wall. Lance’s sermon, with an assist from Mark Burrows at The Gathering this week, lifted up the same idea: we are meant to enjoy being alive, and for us to do the work we are called to, we have to find ways to refuel ourselves, to rebuild our resiliency piggy bank, our surge capacity, our energy resources.

So, yeah, there’s something in the water, the wheels really are coming off right now, but give yourself and those around you a break, and go do something fun. We can ride it out. We got through the first six months. We can do six more. You’ll be ok.

Love and Grace (especially for the next 4 – 6 weeks),

Kat

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youth ministry

Showing Up, Again.

This is not the smoothest semester launch we’ve ever had. Some things have gone really well, like our drive-in last week, and some things have been a bit harder.

All of us who are changing how we run programming, or teach classrooms, or learn from classrooms, or manage offices, are doing so imperfectly, on the fly, and in a more vulnerable place than we’re probably comfortable with. I know I feel that way. We have spent the last two weeks launching all of our fall programming, with some in-person, some virtual, some as large groups outside, some as small groups inside. In total, on Sunday, Youth Ministries ran 11 different events, with 23 volunteers and around 75 teenagers. Having to run everything smaller means 10-15% less work per event, but 3 or 4 times as many events to meet not even as many kids. It’s a lot. It’s hard. We’re not doing it perfectly.

And when I checked my inbox and voicemails this morning — catalogs of questions and concerns and comments from every side – I know I was overwhelmed. The mountain of unknowns, the ambient anxiety of our families, the pastoral needs of our kids, the limitations of teaching online, the risks in doing anything else makes you want to shut your computer, go home, and let someone else, anyone else, give it a try.

When I was in grad school for youth ministry, one of the first and most basic things we were taught is “95% of ministry is showing up.” They meant showing up at games, at schools, at houses, practicing a ministry of presence, of simply showing up for teenagers. It’s such a staple in ministry education. I actually wrote about it once already. I wrote about volleyball games and late-night phone calls when you don’t know what to say, and how just showing up in those moments, even with seemingly nothing of value to offer, was what mattered.

So what does it mean to show up now?

When there are no games to go to, no lunchrooms to visit, when absolutely nothing feels adequate to address the hurt around us, what does it mean to show up? Of course, it means the sonic runs; if you don’t follow the Youth Ministries on Instagram you may not have seen, but the youth staff has been doing 5-7 home visits a week, almost all of them accompanied by sonic, and sitting in teenagers’ front lawns. It has been a gift to spend that time with families, even if all we had was cherry limeade and time.

But how else can we show up?

I think we can listen to the voicemails. Answer the emails. Follow up with the family that dropped off the Earth and ask why. Take the call from the family you know has opinions on how you work, and really listen. Try really hard at something, watch it fail, talk through it, hear all the reasons why, and then show up again, and try something else. Ninety-five percent of ministry is showing up, and, impossible as it seems, we just still have to show up.

I hope you hear your own experience in this. When your kids’ virtual learning isn’t going well for them, what does it mean to show up? When your team loses clients or has a project timeline derailed by a situation completely outside your control, what does it mean to show up? When the political fights get ugly, when your kids are at each other’s throats, when the treatment isn’t working, when you are confident you have absolutely nothing to offer to those you love and want to serve, what does it mean to show up?

Even more, to show up and believe showing up is enough? When God came to Earth to reconcile and redeem us, God’s action was simply to show up. How could we be called to more than that? Our redemption is found in a God that loved us so profoundly to turn away from any comfort gained by ignoring our suffering and to instead be in alongside us in it. Our redemption is found in a God who shows up.

We are called to be imitators of Christ. May we imitate Christ in this new way – in trying (for the fifth time) to log into the zoom room for the weekly family video chat instead of just giving up, in continuing to social distance even when we’re just so over it, in truly hearing out those around us who are frustrated, tired, and anxious themselves when we would rather just mute them. Maybe none of my experiences sound familiar to you at all; maybe you have never once the past six months fantasized about chucking your laptop into a lake and moving into a tiny cabin in the woods and letting someone else, anyone else, give it a try.

But maybe you have, and that’s ok. It’s ok to be frustrated, to take breaks, to need a few deep breaths and a walk outside, and to listen to loud music in your car alone for a while even after you’ve picked up the takeout.

But once you’ve had a minute, go back in. Show up. Show up for those people that love you, that need you, that have shown up for you. Show up for your family, for your friends, for your colleagues and fellow students, offering nothing but yourself and the grace God has given you to make it this far and trust that it is enough, that it is holy, and that if nothing else works out, you’re already 95% of the way to a ministry job anyway.

Love,

Kat

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Life Along the Way

It Will Come Back

I was sad yesterday.

Sometimes I just am, and you can chalk it up to having to skip a few days of runs, or not getting enough time outside, the position of Venus, or whatever you like, but, on these 18 Sundays since the world ended, I have probably spent at least half of them just sad. The youth building is quiet, the empty sanctuary feels bleak, staff a couple pews apart, clicking away on laptops as the band wordlessly tinkers with volume levels and tunes guitars. It’s not all bad, I appreciate the chance to be in a beautiful building, to see my friends on staff, and know it’s a gift to have volunteers to run cameras, a way to live-stream, a job that I care about. But as the band leads, or the organ plays, I don’t sing much. I don’t join in on the spoken prayers, or repeat after the clergy as they lead liturgies to camera 3. A few times that sadness has bubbled over into full tears – senior recognition Sunday, Father’s Day, Easter – but usually I’m just sad.

I told my husband when I got home that the morning had gone fine, I just… I just was sad. He said what a lot of people would say in that moment,

“I’m sorry, that sucks, it will get better.”

And I couldn’t help it, the words spilled out before I could stop them,

“Will it? Will it get better? What if this is forever? What if we never go back? What if my last youth group, last mission trip, last Sunday school already happened, and I didn’t know? What if we go back and there’s a new outbreak and it happens all over again?”

What if normal never comes back? What if the version of back we get is so unrecognizable that we don’t even want it anymore? What if our anxiety has grown high that we can never be in the same room again? What if every time I look out at crowded room of teenagers, instead of reflecting their loud and jubilant and chaotic energy, I just feel fear? What if the crowded halls at Easter and Christmas become, even if only in my head, liabilities and not beloved signs of life… forever?

But I know I’ve been down this path before. Not the pandemic path, obviously, but the one of fear that certain brokenness may never heal. I spent a year of my early 20’s living in Thailand working on Child Sexual Assault and Exploitation cases. Soon after I got back, I was at my home church, and a friend of mine was introducing everyone to her sweet baby daughter. As I stood there, watching people pass the baby from one person to another, I felt my heartrate rise, my palms sweat, my brain race with unwanted images and memories. I had to leave the room, I couldn’t hold the baby. I cried in my car that day – what if I could never really be around kids again? What if I could never hold my friends’ kids? What about if I ever had my own? What if this was forever?

But, slowly, over time, the fear faded. I couldn’t force it, or fix it, and I had waves of frustration and sadness, missing the person I had been before. I grieved that that person, that normal, never came back. But, little by little, I felt more comfortable being around kids, playing and talking and laughing, and within about a year I was holding babies again. Now, when I’m hanging out with friends with kids, I am always the first one in line for a baby cuddle. It took time, a long time, a longer time than I could ever imagined when I started my first case, but it came back.

So this week, I’m sad, I’m sad for the time with teenagers I’ve missed, I’m sad for all the time I will miss in the upcoming months. I’m sad for how hard and slow our path back to an us that I know will be. We’ve all changed, things will never really go back to exactly the way they were.

But.

Little by little, we’ll find a way. It will be slower than we want, and it will come with waves of sadness, of fear, of frustration. We will take it at different speeds. We will be affected by different things. We will try to jump ahead only to be pushed back, we will want things to move faster. But my husband was right: it will get better.

This is a reality that is sad and hard, and which will last longer than any of us have the adrenaline to muscle through. We will wish it was different, we will long for a past that we can’t get to and a future that we thought we were promised. We will be sad sometimes, and that’s ok. Because it will come back, little by little. And we probably won’t be hugging strangers at Christmas, but maybe, a few years from now, we’ll be at baseball game, or a big wedding, dancing with our friends who flew in from all over the country, and we won’t be afraid, and it will just hit us all at once that we once thought we would never have this again. 

This is the life we have, and there is no going back. When grief overwhelms us, when fear pushes us to crying in our cars, when we lash out at strangers on the internet, when we want our old life back, I hope we can hold on to the belief that we have overcome great things, great hurt, great fear before, and that we will overcome this as well. There have been sad days, there will be sad days to come, but little by little, it will all come back, and that is enough.

Love,

Kat

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IJM

Battleship: Part 2

Part 2 of a 2-part series. Read part 1 here.

The Intern, Again

My summer internship ended soon after and I went back to school to finish my last year of my masters. As I was approaching graduation, I applied for a couple different research fellowships and opportunities, like a Fulbright, the Peace Corps, and a year-long field office internship with IJM. I wound up taking an opportunity doing communications work with the IJM office in Chennai, India, but two weeks before I was supposed to leave, a tangle with the Indian consulate lead to a last-minute transfer – to Thailand.

The Chennai internship I had agreed to was largely a desk job, writing and researching and working to support the local staff, with a few exciting trips into the field for big rescue operations. Instead I wound up as an Aftercare Intern with the IJM Thailand office on their Child Sexual Assault project. It was a real front-lines kind of role, and not one that I had signed up for at all. Instead of composing high level documents from a desk, showing off my writing skills, research experience, and analytical competency, I spent a year playing with toddlers so the staff could talk to parents about legal strategy, and transporting hundreds of baby catfish to a rural village to help set up a sustainable source of income for a family, and picking up lunch for some kids who were stuck at court all day testifying against their abuser. It was, for the most part, decidedly unglamorous, and unbelievably precious, time. The time confronted and redeemed my stance of unreflective self-centering savior. The quiet, tender, gut-wrenching, breath-taking sweetness and sadness of it all, of quiet villages and crying mothers and playing children and hospital waiting rooms really did a number on me and what I thought was important.

The Solution

 A couple months in, I got a strange email, from my old boss’s boss. He told me that he had recently had a meeting with some executives from the largest supermarket chain in North America who had come to him saying that they knew there was slavery in their supply chain of fish and shrimp that they were importing from Southeast Asia, but that they didn’t know how to fix it. They wanted IJM to do something about it, and they would pay for it. He said he hadn’t known what the meeting was about before, so he hadn’t had time to prep anything, but as they spoke, he remembered: an FOE, an impossible project, and a joke about a yacht. He pulled out my old FOE memo and used it to establish that IJM knew about the problem and to talk next steps. He emailed me to say thank you, to let me know my work made a difference, and that even if this project didn’t work out, that it had helped establish legitimacy and connection with a corporation looking to partner with IJM with infinitely deep pockets.

I was lucky to serve in the IJM Thailand office as that meeting turned into more meetings, a grant proposal, and a million dollar grant to conduct baseline research to get an understanding of the scale of the problem (that was more sound than calculations done by a 21 year old intern in D.C.). I saw the first hires of real experts to work full-time on researching and understanding the problem, while I worked in a different part of the office, packing up bags of new clothes and toiletries for our clients, and for the large part, didn’t really talk much about my connection to what became known as the “The [name redacted but it’s a big company that sounds like it sells walls but doesn’t] Project.”

The feeling I had watching those first studies come together was the same as the one I had while sitting outside courtrooms with loved ones waiting on decisions from judges, or helping a child victim pick out new clothes. A shock-still gratitude to be invited to be witness, even participant, in something so sacred. 

At 21, I had no concept that the people whose testimonies I read, the numbers that I had crunched, were real people with real stories and a real divine spark in them. I had no capacity to understand the level of human suffering that I had butted up against when I laid out how the recruitment system worked, in a flow chart, in a memo. I had now the chance to walk around inside my own data, hold its hands, and see the humanity it encapsulated. I was self-conscious about how haphazardly I had thrown the information about the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people onto the desk of my supervisor, and truly embarrassingly grateful that not only may justice be done in spite of my self-centeredness, but that I got to witness it.

In 2017, IJM Bangkok was founded, and now has a team of several dozen working full time to bring rescue to men who have been victims of labor trafficking in the fishing industry. In 2019, the office got its first conviction, of a trafficker who had trafficked hundreds, if not thousands, of men onto boats. They continue to establish their work, rescue people, help them rebuild their lives, and work to transform the justice system.

I am now more than 5 years out of my time working for IJM, and 7 years from writing that memo. I, like everyone else, shake my head at some of the ways I worked, thought, and acted at 21, but I had am also so decidedly grateful that I had the chance to be a part of something that will change not only the lives of everyone it rescues, but maybe even the whole industry around it. I am grateful that I got to see my place in this work that is so much bigger than myself. Most of us never get to know what impact our work will have on the world around us, and I am so grateful for all the ways I’ve gotten to work for good in the years since, and we are all part of God’s work for bringing justice in the world, but man, I feel lucky to be a tiny part of this chapter of it.

Check out more about IJM Bangkok, and all of IJM’s work, here.

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IJM

Battleship: Part 1

Part 1 of a 2-part Series (It was a long story). Part 2 here.

The Intern

When I was 21, I landed a summer internship with International Justice Mission (IJM), the world’s largest anti-slavery organization. This place was a big deal, it was the kind of organization where we all wore suits every day, and where there were frequent visits from senators and celebrities; we even got a shout-out from Obama in a national address.

I was one of 24 interns, and I had (in my humble opinion) the coolest job on intern row – Field Operations, South East Asia. That means I was the headquarters intern assigned to help with the field work for the offices in (at the time) Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines. These offices did casework primarily concerning child sexual assault (CSA), and the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), and were some of IJM’s oldest, and most famous, teams. There were books, 60 Minutes specials, even movies, about the work these offices did. These teams did things like undercover investigations, middle of the night rescues of exploited kids, they took on huge criminal organizations and saved kids, I mean come on. It was the definition of a cool job.

But I was an intern, thousands of miles away in DC, meaning that I did mainly research and compiled data. One of the projects I was given was a couple of Field Office Expansion memos, or a long, arduous document that was meant to explore the feasibility of a certain location for a new field office. There were 4 field office interns (we were divided by region) and each of us were given 3 or 4. IJM only opens a new office once every couple years, so needless to say, the vast majority of these memos are written by interns, showed to their supervisor once, and then shelved.

One of mine was for a new office in Thailand that would take on forced labor slavery in the fishing industry. The rumor was floating around the anti-human trafficking world that laborers were being picked up at the coast and disappearing for years only to turn up at hospitals and safehouses, telling stories of being trapped out at sea, and escaping by climbing inside crates of fish being off-loaded. IJM was just opening an office to deal with slavery in the fishing industry on Lake Volta in Ghana, and IJM had done force labor work in India for years, but this was a new beast. As I began my research, pouring through reports, first from watchdogs like the International Labor Organization, and then small local Thai NGOs, it became obvious: the scale of this problem was truly massive.

The Problem

There was a metric in FOE that was meant to measure how many people were really suffering from a problem, for example, one of the other FOE’s I did explored CSEC cases in Fiji, and while I could find data supporting it was an issue, the population of the island was so small that it was almost immediately disqualified as a potential office location. There were, according to prevalence reports and me crunching the numbers, maybe 1,000 victims total in the country.

Using the same formulas, data, and research sources, I crunched the numbers for the Thai fishing industry. I don’t remember exactly what the numbers were, but what I do remember is this: on the prevalence scale inside the memo, my number was so much bigger than the highest possible one on the scale that I recalculated it several times because I assumed I had made a mistake. The data suggested that were hundreds of thousands of people being held in slavery in the gulf of Thailand at any given moment.

I went deep, reading every survivor testimony, google-translated source document, and scrap of information I could find. I got an understanding for how the system basically worked, for how there could be entire cities worth of slaves floating in the Pacific Ocean. Day laborers were being picked up in Bangkok and put on transport ships, “hired” for a day shift, or for a couple days of labor, only to be taken to massive fishing vessels, deep in international waters. Smaller ships made frequent trips out to these huge operations, picking up the fish, and dropping off supplies. This meant that the ships could stay out in international waters, with the entire crew enslaved and trapped on-board, for years. Years. Soon after crews arrived, a worker who was subordinate or “lazy” according to the enslavers would often be publicly beaten, even, in one of the testimonies, to the point of death, and thrown overboard.

I remember one of the criteria on the form was strength of legal framework – basically, under current legislation in the country, how easy will it be to prosecute these cases? Thailand was famous for a long time for having legislation that made prosecuting rape and sexual assault cases almost impossible, which is part of the reason it became a hotbed for human trafficking. In the case of forced labor in the fishing industry, it was arguably worse. Because the men voluntarily got on the boats to do fishing work, and then were exploited in international waters, the window of how and when and under what government slavers could even be prosecuted was near nonexistent. Not to mention, these weren’t pimps, or even people running rings of several dozen exploited children, or even slavers in India with 100 people trapped in debt bondage.

These were giant ships with thousands of people, including security with automatic weapons across their chests. These ships were funded by some of the largest corporations in the world, who had an interest in keeping supply costs as low as possible. These ships, and the slaves on them, supplied up to 50% of the fish, and 70% of the shrimp, in American supermarkets.

I took all of this to my boss’s boss, presented what I found. I was 21, I couldn’t even begin to understand what it was I was putting on his desk. I had done some research assistant work in college, and knew how to do it, so I had simply done what was asked. It occurred to me only in the most abstract of senses that these were real people, real organizations, and a real humanitarian crisis that I had planted myself and, now him, and all of IJM inside of. I explained all of it, and he read over my report, and then stared past me through the glass doors of his office. Unsure how to respond to the tension in the room, I cracked a joke,

“What I’m saying is that we need an IJM Yacht.” He laughed and looked back at me,

“What we’re gonna need is a battleship.”

Read the rest of the story here.

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Life Along the Way

June 9th.

I was alone in an airport terminal Starbucks when I got the call that my dad had died. I had left work early to try to catch a flight home, he was on hospice, and I thought I could make it in time to say goodbye. I didn’t.

It was terminal A, around gate 30, at DFW – one of those glossy terminals with big touch screens everywhere and decorated in Apple-store-shiny-white rounded corner plastic. It was full of people. Full of people who heard me sobbing on the phone telling my mother I was so sorry. Who watched in the discomfort of a stranger’s pain as I sat down up against a pillar at the gate and cried. I remember a girl brought me tissues, handed them to me silently without taking out her headphones.

I called and texted friends, family, co-workers, partially to pass along the news, partially to ease the unbearable reality of being totally alone in a room full of strangers in one of the worst moments of my life.

The flight got delayed, and then delayed again, and then canceled, and then I was put on another flight, which was also delayed, and then delayed again, and then canceled, and so it went on and on – a mechanic strike had grounded every single plane leaving DFW. This hell at least gave me the relief of something to do as I power-walked in a pointless loop from flight to flight to flight only to know deep in my gut that they were all getting cancelled.

Around flight 3 or 4, In the airline purgatory where you wait to board a flight that keeps getting delayed in 15-minute windows before its inevitably cancelled, I wound up with 45 minutes just to sit at a gate. I found myself stuck. I thought I would start sobbing again, and I didn’t. It just felt like waiting for a regular flight on a regular day. The television screens talked about basketball, the Warriors, about Durant’s injury and… closed captions lagged behind meaningless tables of shot percentages and free throws.

I pulled out my laptop and started to write,

“This is really happening. The weirdest thing about this moment is how much it feels like every other moment. Now that the sobs have passed what is left is a bizarre, normal feeling. A confusion about what I’m allowed to feel, supposed to feel. Is this the beginning or the end of the grief? What shape will it take next? When will tears come, sadness sit? What does it mean to take care of ourselves when everything is so unclear?

I love you, Dad. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I tried. Maybe I could have tried harder. I had no idea you had so little time. Help me know how to help mom. You were brave, soft-hearted, self-reliant and kind. I wish I could have said goodbye. I loved you. I was grateful to have gotten the time I did with you. I am glad you aren’t suffering any more. I hope you are at peace. I hope you get to hug your parents. I hope they are whole and well. I hold on to the belief that I will see you and hug you again. I hold on to the hope that the end is not the end. That this life is a shadow of a life to come where there are no more tears and the pain and loss washes away.

Where death is the last enemy to be defeated. I’m sorry I wasn’t more loving or more gracious. I wish we had gotten more time. I wish you could have met my future kids. I wish they could have known their strong-willed, wild-hearted grandfather.

I’ve played out this day a lot of times in my head. I’ve wondered what today would feel like. I wondered if it would be like this. I’m not sure how to be myself in this moment, how to occupy all of the space that I exist in. How do I help my feet find ground. How do I wander through an airport full of strangers and live in the bizarre reality that this day – June 9th, 2019 – will always be the day that my dad died?

That today is still June 9th, 2019, and that my dad just died?”

I stopped writing that day because a stranger approached me in the airport. She was on the same flight I was to Nashville. The flight that was cancelled, and she had also been put on a new one, which was canceled, over and over again, in the same Sisyphus of cycles of hope on disappointment I was on.

She said she was overwhelmed, she never flew, she didn’t know what to do. After the flight we were both at the gate for was cancelled, she asked if we could go to the next one together. After 8 hours of trying to get on a new flight, it was almost 10pm and it became clear we weren’t getting a flight that night, and probably wouldn’t the next day. But I had to get home.

I looked at my new friend and asked if she wanted to make the drive with me. We left the airport, got in my car, and the two of us drove through the night to Nashville together. The day my dad died ended with a 13-hour overnight road trip with a complete stranger. We talked the whole way. Her name was Heather.

I got home around 9am, and I drove my mom to the church. I spoke to visitor after visitor after visitor, and stayed out until midnight watching the NBA finals at a bar with a friend. Golden State Warriors vs the Toronto Raptors, game 5.

In both a metaphorical and literal sense, it was the longest day of my life.

I felt like I was doing it wrong, like my feelings for my father were invalid, my heart was wired incorrectly, that I didn’t know how to grieve. Turns out grieving is a lot more complicated, tender, strange, and unexpected than I could have imagined then.

I wanted someone to tell me what I was supposed to do, what I supposed to feel, how I was supposed to just talk to airline customer service and buy airport pretzels when this had just happened. I wanted to know what it was going to look like, I wanted it to be like I saw in the movies, I wanted to feel both more and less. But the fact is, grief didn’t look like lying on the ground crying for me, it didn’t look like sackcloth and ashes. It didn’t look like the movies. It looked like IPAs in a crowded bar, strangers yelling at screens while I watched the stats tick by.

It was quiet. It was lonely. For all of the ways that I tend to be emotionally expressive and outspoken, grief was shy. 

It’s been a year. People kept telling me it was going to hit me like a ton of bricks, it was going to drop like an anvil on my head, like one day I was going to wake up and I wasn’t going to be able to breathe, the tumors would feel like they were in my lungs instead. It never did. I went to a counselor once, asked if I was grieving correctly. I asked if they were right, if I was delaying the inevitable, making it worse, by not having the anvil crash down yet. She told me grief doesn’t work like that for everyone. That I was ok. No anvil was coming.

I started running in the month before my dad died. I liked the feeling of my chest heaving, my heart pounding, sweating. It made me feel alive. Running was something I had never really done before. If I had to guess, I had voluntarily gone on a run maybe 15 times in my entire life before last May. According to my watch, this year, I’ve gone on 306. My grief looked like hundreds and hundreds of miles on trails alone. It only was with loud music in headphones, heaving breaths, and foot-strikes on pavement that the weight allowed itself to be felt. For me, grief was shy, and it was lonely.

But it was real, and this week, today, June 9th, 2020, the first anniversary of my dad’s death, it is real.

Love you, Dad. Miss you.

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Life Along the Way, youth ministry

Because it Matters More Today

I was working with our youth ministries intern, Gabby, on her outline for her bible study today, and I found myself giving a lot more feedback, and more emotional feedback, than normal. My email back to her turned into a sermonette and as I sent it up, I realized why: because it matters more today. This is Holy Week, during the biggest global crisis of our teenagers’ young lives. What we say about who God is, about who Jesus is in this exact moment matters.

So what do we say? In my last blog, Just 4 things, I talked about our foundational grounding during this time, especially when I was hearing so much from our teenagers about how they felt like God “was on vacation or something” or was “cleansing the earth, like the flood” or how about how they thought it was the end of days. I’ve been asking teenagers where they see God in this, and they have struggled to answer, but have come up with the kindness of strangers, beautiful weather, family time, which is lovely, but can I add mine?

In Elie Wiesel’s Night, he tells a story of being in the concentration camps, and being marched by those who had been hung.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…”

This is where God is: God is on the cross, suffering and dying alone. God is in overcrowded New York ERs, God is at the bedside of those who die without loved ones around to hold their hands, God is putting on a homemade face-mask. Where is God? God is here, in this, our crucifixion. God has shown us who God is. In this Holy Week, we look again at the story of our God who was crucified, who entered into the deepest of human suffering and was broken alongside us. Last week in the Gathering, Lance talked about how Jesus knows who we want him to be, but he is instead what we need him to be.

Maybe we want God to be above all this, casting down miracles and judgements according to some grand roster of worthiness, but in Jesus, God has shown us where God truly is, and that’s here, crying in target parking lots, feeling our stomach drop when our parents or children cough, in Italian emergency hospitals where doctors decide who they will try to save.

And that matters. God has shown us what perfect love is in Jesus, and that love didn’t sweep in and solve problems, it didn’t tell us we didn’t have it so bad, or to make the most of the situation. That love came and walked alongside and prayed alongside and suffered alongside.

Easter will come, death will be defeated, God will reconcile and heal all things. But today it matters we remember where God is in the meantime.

Kat

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Life Along the Way, youth ministry

Four Things.

I’ve been on FaceTime a lot lately. I’ve been talking to our teenagers from their desks, their unmade beds, their dining room tables. I would so much rather have them all here in the youth building, but there has been a striking silver lining to this new way of reaching them.

In their comfortable homes, without their friends around, processing through nerves and isolation, uncertainty, disappointment, and fear, they have been more honest than usual. Maybe its because they don’t have school or sports to talk about, or maybe its because crisis makes us ask these questions, but they have offering up wonderings and worries about who God is, and where God is, with unflinching authenticity.

They have been wondering out loud about how a God that is control could do allow all this suffering, about how a God who is good could watch their world fall apart and not do anything. They come up with their own conclusions, some of which honestly made me heart drop because they suggest a God so unloving that He would cause suffering, death, and loss to achieve some unknown goal, or so uncaring that He would be disinterested in the chaos that surrounds them.

So allow me to take a moment and share what Matt and I have written on the whiteboard in the youth office. We normally fill that board with checklists, plans, meeting schedules, but today it has just four things on it:

God is good.

God is here.

God loves us.

It will be ok.

In the weeks, and likely months, of uncertainty to come, in the years of processing and unpacking that will follow, in the new normal we create in the face of fear and loss we never saw coming, we will pray, and repeat, and cling to these four things. The ministry we practice, the words on our tongues, will all find ground in that truth: God is good, God is here, God loves us, it will be ok.

As you talk to your teenagers, young children, and even adults, understand that for many of them, this crisis is shaping how they perceive their world and their God. For our teenagers, this will become a generationally definitional moment. I wish it wasn’t, I wish they got to have the senior year they imagined, the school plays they practiced for, the track meets and tournaments they trained and hoped and waited for. As Matt said in the office yesterday in a moment of releasing frustration, “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, I want our old wheel back, I liked that wheel, that wheel was working great!”

But that is not our reality, this is. And in that, God is still good. God is still here. God still loves us. And it will be ok. We can be harbingers of hope, stalwart holders of that truth for them. Matt and I commit to repeating those four truths as often as we have to these coming months, for our families, for our teenagers, and for ourselves. May they offer you comfort as well.

God is good.

God is here.

God loves us.

It will be ok.

 

Kat

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