Saying Goodbye

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Each year it seems to get harder and harder to say goodbye to our graduating class 8 students because with each passing class, we have one more year of history. The class 8 students taking their exams now are the students that were in class 4 when we met them the first time. I’ll never forget that day in the field when they all gathered around us and sang about Jesus being their best friend. Although we’ve seen them sing it many times since then for various visitors, that memory is still so special to me. After taking their exams, many will go back to their homes in the village with extended family, and we may or may not get to see them again. I try not to think about this too much because it breaks my heart. I find myself wondering about some of the previous students that I loved so much. I wonder how they are doing. I pray that they still see Jesus as their best friend.

Last Saturday we had the class 8 students over to our house for some snacks and hopefully a few words to encourage them as they begin their all-important KCPE exam. Chris did a great job speaking to them about good pressure and bad pressure. These kids are so young and the pressure on them is so great to do well on these exams. It’s as if their entire future rests on what score they make. This pressure is too much for anyone to bear. Chris encouraged them to focus on everything they have learned, all the hard work they have already put in, and he told them to accept the pressure that comes from wanting to do well and for their performance to reflect all the hard work they have done. He urged them not to bear the kind of pressure that tells them that their self worth is riding on this thing. We assured them we would be in prayer for them. Their teachers offered some encouragement as well. I had a hard time knowing what to say. I know their minds are on this exam, but my mind is going beyond that to the goodbyes that come afterward. I read a children’s book to them that expresses so beautifully what I want to say. It talks of love following them in life wherever they go. I want so badly for them to know the kind of love that God offers them. I want them to carry my love with them, but more importantly, I want them to know the love of their heavenly Father that can never be outgrown or lost or stollen. It finds them in the most remote village or in the most crowded slum.

My only consolation to saying goodbye to these precious students is knowing that Jesus truly is their best friend and that His love will follow them wherever they go. Ringroad school is an incredibly special place where seeds are planted and children carrying these precious kingdom seeds are sent out, back into the cities and villages of Kenya. May God please let them fall on good soil where they can take root and grow into something beautiful, yielding a harvest of abundance!

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Kenya on strike

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We’ve had a pretty quiet couple of weeks here in Kisumu for one major reason: strike. All the public school teachers in Kenya decided not to return to work for the last term of the year which was supposed to start on September 1. There is, of course, a dispute over raises which they were promised by the courts but have not yet received from the central government. The strike has now been going on for 1 month and was supposed to end today as per a new ruling by the courts. The students have not yet returned to school but we are hoping that will happen this week. So far Ringroad has not been affected very much because it is a private school, but these events will ultimately effect all class 8 students in the country because it could delay the administration of the all-important KCPE exam. This is a national exam taken by all class 8 students in Kenya which determines their acceptance into high school. Acceptance is based solely on the student’s score on this exam. While private school students have continued with their learning, the public school students have been forced to fall behind with no teachers to teach them. With the exams scheduled for November, these students are feeling a lot of stress over the study time that they are losing. These exams represent all their hopes for the future. The Ringroad students are feeling anxious over the possibility of the exams being delayed, as they have worked so hard to prepare. Unfortunately, our high school students are in the same predicament, especially the students in their final year who are preparing for a similar exam which determines their possible entry into a university. We continue to pray for these students as they do their best to persevere and earn an education in less than ideal circumstances.

I continue to see a quality in my Kenyan friends that I admire so much: they don’t get flustered. Some people may look at me and think that I am not easily flustered (anyone who knows me well knows differently). This is only my exterior. My interior sometimes feels like one gigantic ball of worry and stress and insecurity. Many of the Kenyans I know face the most dire circumstances with an amazingly cool, calm, collected demeanor. I want to be more like that. If little 8th grade Sarah had faced a situation like the current teacher strike that jeopardized all my hopes for the future, I would have probably turned into a puddle on the ground. The Kenyan people inspire me. They face hunger, hardship, set-backs, closed doors, and personal loss with poise. The only problem is when the leaders of this country know their people are facing these issues and go about addressing them with a calmness that borders on disinterest. Let me not judge anyone’s heart, but just pray that God moves in the hearts of the people in power to help others the way they themselves would wish to be helped. Please join me in this prayer.

Short-Term Missions: is it worth it?

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The short-term mission trip: is it worth it or not? As a full-time missionary myself, I obviously feel that it is important to have people at foreign mission points who live there year-round, but we also have a large number of visitors come to Kisumu throughout the year who are here for various lengths of time working on more short-term projects. As the northern hemisphere’s summer draws to a close, we are ending another “high” season for mission teams. I wanted to post some pictures of the groups that have come over and the projects they worked on, but rather than give you a run-down of what everyone did, I would like to instead try to convince you of the importance of these kinds of trips in an effort to advocate for the short-term missionary in todays evangelical culture which might make them feel like their work is somehow less valuable.

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I’ve often heard the expression, “put your money where your mouth is.” Well, I would like to alter this a bit and say, “put yourself where your money is.” I say this because billions of dollars have been invested in Africa in an attempt to help develop the continent and relieve some of the poverty. While the money is hugely helpful, I think we would all agree that it hasn’t accomplished everything the donors hoped for. I believe that it is incredibly important for donors to come and see for themselves what their money is doing. Whether you are giving millions of dollars to a huge organization or just sending $5 to a child for a christmas gift, things change when you take the child by the hand to go shopping together. That’s when you learn that they’ve had 3 siblings that have already passed away, or that they haven’t had a meal in 2 days, or that everything they had was stollen by an uncle after their father died. You also learn what it looks like to put a relationship ahead of your schedule for the day or how members of a close community step up and take care of each other in times of need rather than choosing their own privacy or independence as a priority. Learning these things changes you. I believe, it changes you for the better. This is also a time when the local people get to learn things, too. It’s when they learn that honesty and integrity, while sometimes inconvenient in the moment, bring a longer lasting reward, and that everyone is loved and valued the same in God’s eyes. So, you see, the learning goes both ways. There is give, and there is take: an exchange of thoughts and ideas for the mutual benefit of those involved. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? In my opinion, this kind of exchange is what has the power to bring people out of poverty. I won’t say that it will change Africa, because I don’t think Africa needs changing. I love Africa, and I love Kenya.

On another level, these interactions: a day spent playing with a child, a prayer prayed over a sick mama, a bit of business advice shared with someone making a living by cooking chips on the roadside, these interactions can make a world of difference for the person who was reached out to. Each time a mission group comes, how many people’s worlds are made better, even if just for the day? We know that Jesus could come take us home at any time, either by death or some other means, so we should live each day as our last. What better way to then spend one of these days than by improving the day of someone else? We belittle the idea of helping someone in any way that isn’t “lasting” in our minds, but in this logic we forget that nothing in this world will last. So let’s take each day that we have and use it to give to someone else. When there are opportunities to build people or countries up for the future, let’s do that, and when all we can do is put a smile on someone’s face for right now, let’s do that. But here’s the first step: show up. Show up to your own life. Show up to the adventure God has for you. Whether it looks like an adventure or it looks like a nightmare or it looks like a mundane life that couldn’t possibly be accomplishing anything, if you are walking with the Lord, He is using you, my friend. Every person around you is a world that you can change, so show up for those people. And if God calls you to Kisumu Kenya for a short or a long time, show up here. The Kenyans and the Nicholsons will be here waiting.

A miss, a save, and a funeral: the funeral

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Some people just have an innate, God-given gift when it comes to seizing opportunities.  My husband is one of those people.  While I’m sitting down listing out pros and cons on an excel spreadsheet and contemplating presenting my final decision on a powerpoint presentation with bullet points, an outline, and cool pictures to illustrate each point, Chris is out there living life, halfway to the finish line.  He has already bought a new puppy or kitten or turtle or… donkey (I should have just agreed to the rabbits).  He has ordered that new dish on the menu, and it was delicious.  He has tried out the new route to the super market and found it to be faster.  He has bought the router from the newest internet company in town and gotten us faster internet.  I love this about Chris (most of the time), and when it comes to ministry, this quality serves Chris very well.

When you have to go to a hospital in a third world country where doctors sometimes need a little push to make things happen and there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency even in urgent situations and everything needs constant follow-up, Chris is the one you want on your side.  It makes me feel a little guilty because he is such a champion for me when I’m in the hospital having a baby, for example, but when he is in the hospital with a kidney stone, all he has is his wimp wife to take care of things.  I’ve seen him visit countless people in the hospital, and he always manages to make things happen that just wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Just a few weeks ago a very dear friend of ours called us because her 2-year-old baby was sick and needed to go to the hospital.  This sweet baby named Sarah, or SarahChris as some know her, has been through a lot of physical trauma in her very short life because of a medical condition she was born with.  Chris and I and Heidi Hutton have been involved in helping little Sarah survive through these medical difficulties, and her mom has been a champion through it all.  As a single mother of four children doing her best to survive and take care of her family, this mom is the picture of the maternal instinct that God gave women to care for their children in what the world would call an impossible situation.

Chris and I went to the hospital the night that she called, and baby Sarah was admitted.  Over the course of the next few days the baby was put on oxygen and her condition deteriorated.  Her mother became more and more exhausted as she had nothing to sleep on but a wooden bench where she sat at her daughter’s side all day long.  After 5 days in the hospital, Sarah went to be with Jesus forever.  Chris had been up at the hospital almost every day getting to know the doctors, making sure she got the medicine she was supposed to, helping her to get the x-ray the doctor ordered.  He seized every opportunity possible to save this baby, not only on this occasion, but many, many, more in the past 2 years of her life.  In the end, God has the final say over how life goes, and in this case, he allowed her to slip away from us.  We were all very sad, but her mother, who had fought for her life with all the strength she had, was devastated.

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Even though we weren’t able to save this baby’s life in the end, Chris wasn’t done with this opportunity to do something for God’s kingdom.  The funeral was planned for the very next day, and Chris and I along with some others from our church traveled to attend the funeral.  It was an interesting experience to say the least.  The service was led by a group of people from one of the Luo traditional religions.  There was a lot of sing/shouting, clapping, drumming, and a small metal instrument that would be the equivalent to our triangle, but played with much more gusto.  Several men got up and preached with so much intensity that I’m sure they never took a breath during their 30 minute spiel.  Any time there was silence the group would break out in singing, drumming, and clinking. Finally, Sarah’s mom got up to say something and spoke with much courage about her daughter whom she loved so much and about how grateful she was for Chris and I.  Chris was also given a turn to speak, and he spoke with what had to have been inspiration from the Holy Spirit.  He spoke so eloquently about the strength, courage, and peace that Sarah’s mom had displayed throughout Sarah’s life.  She had gone to hospital after hospital, talked to countless doctors and nurses, many of whom were very demeaning to her.  She traveled a great distance on a bus by herself with her seizing child in hopes to find a hospital that could really help.  All of this she did one her own, without the help of any man.  Well, she wasn’t really alone, at all, ever.  She had the Lord with her.  Chris preached directly to the men seated there who hadn’t helped Vivian in all of her troubles that men and women are equal in the eyes of the Lord, and that, with the help of the Lord, this woman had acted with the supernatural strength placed deep down inside of her by the Lord himself.  It was a lesson in what the Lord could do in a person that the world sees as weak, and a lesson in humility for those of us who feel higher than others or who see the needs of others as beneath us.  I was convicted, and I pray that others in the audience were, too.

For the last few months I have been thinking a lot about what I have learned here in Kenya, and I have to say that one thing I have learned for sure is that we have to keep our eyes open for opportunities all around us to serve the Lord.  They may come at inconvenient times and in unexpected ways.  God can redeem our misses, but tuning our ears to the voice of the Lord helps us make the most of every chance to encourage those around us.  And sometimes, what looks like a failed attempt to help may turn out to be the best opportunity of all.

A miss, a save, and a funeral: the save

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So I just wrote about a time when God gave me a great opportunity and I whiffed. But, thanks to the Holy Spirit working in my life, sometimes I’m able to save a near missed opportunity. Recently, I was spending some time with one of the girls in our ministry. We had lunch together and just spent some time talking about life and what her future might look like. I tried to ask every probing question I could think of, because I have found that our students often have a really hard opening up about problems in their life. Finally, it was time to drop her off at home, and I needed to go pick up Iddy from school, which I was already a little late for.

When I stopped the car for her to get out, she just sat there in the passenger’s seat, so I made a few more “closing remarks.” I was singing the invitation song, as the Cagle family says. She still stayed in her seat. At this point I was thinking about how I needed to hurry and go get Iddy, and Chris needed me to look up some information for him on my phone which was pretty urgent, but the Holy Spirit helped me put all of that aside for one minute and I finally said, “was there something else you needed to talk to me about?” I saw tears in her eyes as she struggled to ask what she clearly was having such a hard time asking. She wondered if I could give her some panties. Immediately I realized that this was probably a very embarrassing moment for her, and I wanted to help her in any way I could, so I said of course I would help her with that. She then proceeded to tell me that she could really use some clothes, too. Her guardian doesn’t ever by her these things. In fact, she told me that on Christmas day, her guardian had bought new clothes and shoes for all of her own children, but told my friend that there wasn’t money to buy anything for her. Her mother lives in a village in another part of Kenya, and she hasn’t been able to go and visit her mother for 2 years because she hasn’t been given the money for transportation. She was feeling so down on Christmas day that she went to visit her cousin who had tried her best to cheer her up, but it was clear to me that she still felt very sad and broken.

I was humbled and felt extremely inadequate, but I did what I could. We went back to my house and I gave her all of my clothes that I had been saving to give away. I was also really touched when she told me of another student at school that sometimes gave her clothes, too. None of our students have very much, so when I see one of them giving to another I know it’s a true sacrifice. I can always go out and buy more clothes if I need them. They can’t.

When we were finished she had a big smile on her face. I hugged her and told her I loved her, which she probably needed even more than the clothes. Earlier in the day she had told me she wanted to be a doctor and I encouraged her to make sure that when she found success she should use it to make Kenya a better place for everyone living here. I believe that our work here is sewing seeds now that will bring a harvest later, but sometimes sewing seeds doesn’t look like what we would expect for it to. Sometimes it feels like the world is full of loud noises and voices shouting at me to do certain things that I deem important, but there is a still, small voice steadily leading me in the direction of the Lord. I’m learning to turn down the volume of the world so I can hear His voice and seize every opportunity laid before me.

A miss, a save, and a funeral: the miss

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Have you ever experienced one of those moments, when, at the time, it seems insignificant, but looking back at it later, you realize, “wow, that was huge,” or, as my brother David used to say, “that was clutch.” I have a lot of moments like that it would seem. In some ways it’s really good because we all long for significance in life and these moments bring us a sense of significance. Unfortunately, however, because we don’t always see what’s happening in the moment, we often handle these situations the wrong way. Later, when we realize what we’ve done, we are haunted by our mistakes… at least I am. We try to justify what we did in our minds, or we seek justification from others (sorry, Chris), but in the end we just have to suck it up and say, “God, I’m sorry I did that. I handled that situation the wrong way. Please redeem it in the way only you can, and give me another chance.” And, praise God, He always gives us another chance.

Let me give you an example. A few months ago Chris was telling me about the mom of one of our students that he felt I should really talk to and encourage. She came to school one day, and I’m sure I was probably busy doing something (I struggle with prioritizing my “to-do” list above people in need). I’m sure that I reluctantly put down whatever I was doing and started listening to her knowing that she needed my help but feeling in my human heart that I just wanted to get back to whatever I was doing. She proceeded to tell me about her life and her children. She had only been able to finish the 8th grade and now, in her 20s, with a baby at home and older children to take care of, too, she was going back to high school because she wanted a better life for herself. Of course, the problem was that she couldn’t afford the fees and taking care of her children. She humbly requested that we take her baby to live in the orphanage that is a part of our ministry here. This request sent me over the edge and all of her other words left my mind. All I heard was a mommy wanting to give away her baby and I couldn’t stand it. I told her that she needed to keep all her children home with her, and if she couldn’t make that work while going to school that she should put school on hold and just focus on her children. As her eyes began to well up with tears I knew instantly I had taken the wrong approach, but I didn’t have the wisdom to know how to fix it. Our assistant, Elizabeth, jumped in to help and suggested we look for some night school programs. I tried to soften my tone and offer some words of encouragement, but no one wants to hear encouragement from someone who has just stabbed you in the back. She finally mustered up a weak “thank you” and left the office, and I was left with my thoughts.

I began to review what I knew about her and what Chris had told me, which I hadn’t put much thought into before. I realized she must have been around 13 when she had her first child. In all likelihood, this was not her choice. She would have then had to marry the father and so she continued having children with him. What would that have been like for her? Because of her situation she was forced to leave school, and now had picked herself back up and decided she was worth educating. She had gone back to the first year of high school, all while taking care of her family and facing the prospect of being far and away much older than all the other students in her class. Now the stress of it all was wearing on her and she reached out to someone for help… me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be bothered. Ouch.

I’m not saying my response was completely wrong. I still don’t think she needed to give up her baby. But it was clear by my response and her reaction to it that I had failed to put myself in her place, to love her like Jesus. I could have offered her a shoulder to cry on, or just some words of encouragement. I’m convinced that would have been godlier. I wish I could say that’s the only time I’ve done something like that, but I would be lying. God has given me much; therefore He expects much of me. The people we encounter here are oppressed, beaten down, discouraged, lonely. God has made it the responsibility of His church to lighten their load. Each time I miss an opportunity I am more determined to do it right the next time. I may be a slow learner, but I won’t give up. And more importantly, I believe in God’s amazing ability to redeem our blunders. When I see how He redeems this one I will let you know!

I had more to say about a time when I was able to save a near missed opportunity and an attempt to save that God ordained differently, but this blog is already too long, so I will write about those in separate blog posts. In the meantime, may God open your eyes to the opportunities around you so that you have fewer and fewer “misses” as you grow closer to Him who never misses!