When a Stranger Returns

I was reading John S. Burnett’s Where Soldiers Fear To Tread today and came across a passage that resonated with me.  The book is his personal story of his time as a relief worker in Somalia during the 1997-98 flood relief operations.  His story is one of survival, everyday heroics, and the struggle to find his purpose in the chaos.

While working to begin river operations in the Jubba Region (Southern Somalia) based out of Kismayo, he meets another relief worker who comes to equip his speedboat with a HF radio.  This man, Mike Dunne, had just come from the conflict in Kosovo where he was equipping the UN Peacekeeping forces with communications and was eager to get the job completed and get out of Somalia, one of the most dangerous places in the world.  Through their conversation, Dunne mentions that the WFP (World Food Program) had begun training people how to cope.  The following exchange took place:

“Cope? I can cope.”
“How do you know? You haven’t left yet. We all think we can handle it. If you are one in a million who is not affected by this [edit], then you got something missing. No, you wait until you try to return to normal life. It is the withdrawal, mate, going home, trying to pick up where you left off. That is when you see yourself [edit]. They say you are on your own in the field, but believe me, you are on your own when you get back home.”

You see, this is something we all miss.  How do you pick up the pieces when you return home? Come back to your old life?

This is an issue that is bigger than the military and civilian workers in combat zones, but Missionaries out in the field, National Service Volunteers who leave home to serve for a year or two (or four). You are not the same person you were. Even if you come home tomorrow.  Even if you’ve only been gone for a week or a couple days. Your experiences have changed you.

When I returned from Uganda, the things I saw changed me. I didn’t know how to express the pain, the suffering, the unfiltered joy that I experienced there. How can you find the words to speak about something you have not been able to process? How do you cope with seeing things that you never knew you would experience? Seeing death? Poverty? Being loved unconditionally?

I didn’t know how to cope with it all. Nobody ever told me what it would be like to feel alone. Like nobody else would know what I’ve experienced. Nobody told me how to share, to process, to work through the memories.

Oh, I know my experiences are nothing like Burnett’s in Somalia. I wasn’t facing death each day. I wasn’t in a war zone. Physically.

I know too many people who have returned from the missions field, or from serving with the military, or in AmeriCorps who returned home and have found themselves wandering. Lost among people they used to know, who used to know them. We have changed, our desires and dreams have shifted. Out thoughts return to the struggles we faced, and we can no longer handle the peaceful stillness of how things used to be.

You see, we all return homes as strangers. We all have to figure out how we are going to cope with this new experience.

Many of us have caught the bug. Home is no longer the same, so we continue to wander. We learn how to tell our story, to share these experiences. Some of us get lost within ourselves and others change and adapt more quickly. We learn to cope through writing, sharing, or burring it deep within our hearts, forever holding it in until one day it bursts out in an explosion of creativity, fear, and/or pain.

I share this so that we, as family and friends of those strangers returning to us, know that it will never be easy. No number of classes or trainings will prepare us to return to the lives we once held. And figuring out how we cope with our new selves takes time. So, be patient. Love unconditionally. And give them space to grow into the man or woman they have become.


Finding Home on the Journey

Each day for the past two weeks I’ve been reading a chapter of Katie Davis’ book “Kisses from Katie.”  It’s a powerful telling of a young woman’s heart for God and the sacrifices that she makes in following the vision set out before her by God.  Within the words are her struggles and fears, her growth and unwavering trust that no matter what happens God’s plan will work out, with or without her.

On Friday, I was floored by a passage that I read hidden within those pages.  I posted it to my Facebook page to share, and it has been gnawing at my heart each day since.  It goes as follows:

I have come to the realization that I am somewhat of a nomad on this earth.  I am learning to be okay with that.  Human beings long for a place to call home, a nest, a sanctuary of their own.  I have many and none. … My heart lives in so many places.  With so many people.  But God whispers to me that I really have only one home, and that is with Him.  I will never be content on this earth.  I will always be a nomad.  It was meant to be that way.  My heart was created with a desire for a home, a nest, a sanctuary, and that can be found only with Him in Heaven.  And I will continue bouncing from one home to another, loving with everything I have in whatever location I currently reside, excitedly awaiting the day when I am called heavenward and He says to me, “Welcome home.”

There is a saying that I grew up with as an Army Brat:  “Home is where the Army sends you.”  But in recent years I’ve found myself saying “Home is where the heart is.”  To be honest, I don’t have a physical ‘home’ in which I call my own.

My parents live in N. Virginia.  Me, I’ve lived all over the place.  In my journeys since graduating college, I’ve lived aboard the M/V Africa Mercy (Togo and on the sail down to South Africa), Denver, CO, Clarksville, TN, Vicksburg, MS and now St Louis, MO.  Like Katie, I don’t have a nesting place to call home.  And part of me never wants to settle down.

I am most comfortable constantly on the move.  I learned that when, after staying in a single place all throughout High School when my father retired from the Army, I was ready to leave after the second year.  In college, I survived by venturing fourth during the summer months, serving up at Young Life’s Saranac Village (Upstate New York) and traveling forth on missions trips to Honduras and Uganda.

I know that one day I will be called home, but until that moment I will continue to seek God wherever He leads me.  That being said, I hope to return to my wanderings soon.  I don’t want to be tied down by commitments (debts from student loans for the most part).  I want to see the world and the glory of the Father that surrounds it.

On that same note, I have a friend that has been given the vision to go forth on her own journey.  I know her from Anderson University, where we both studied art and spent a good part of our ‘free’ time at the coffee shop on campus.  We talked and hung out on occasion, learning from and encouraging one another.  And while our paths parted ways years ago, we have kept in touch through the gift that is technology.

Ashley is heading out with The World Race in September to journey with God and serve Him across the world.  She, like hundreds of missionaries across the world, have forsaken their worldly home in the pursuit of something greater.  I urge you to read her story (that can be found at http://ashleyganahl.theworldrace.org/) and support her through prayer.  And if God is leading you to give, don’t wait.

I was asked recently how I live this way, without a foundation, a place to call home.  I smile because my roots are spread both deep and wide.  My family has taught me to rely on trust in both God and others.  My journey has given me the opportunity to reach out and my ‘family’ now stretches across the nations.

I challenge you to let go.  Find your true home.  If that means following the call to serve, Go!  Don’t hesitate, for we do not know if today will be our last.

Just some thoughts….

God Bless and PEACE

Sleepless Nights (and a growing fear)

The past several weeks have been difficult and challenging.  I’ve spent countless hours awake a night, thinking.  Praying.  And all I hear is the silence screaming out in my head and echoing throughout my heart.  I’ve woken from dreams that I cannot understand, that vanish into the mist of unconscious thought.  And part of me knows that they were trying to tell me something.

I’ve been distracted by the silence.  So I try to fill it with background noise.  Music.  Reading.  Movies.  Conversation.  But nothing can fill this emptiness that I feel eating away within me.

I once knew where I needed to be.  What I was called to do.  I used to understand where I was going, who I was becoming.  But now I no longer recognize those dreams.

Yesterday I was challenged to think of what I truly want to do with my life.  Where do I want to go, after all the distractions, expectations, and commitments are taken away?  Who do I wish to be if I were free to follow my dreams without any reservation?

Several years ago I wrote that my dream job would be to travel across Africa to tell the stories of missionaries and share the light in the darkness of that continent.  Since then I have drifted off from that path, but my dream is still the same.

My heart yearns to return to Africa.  I want to chase after the light shining in the darkness and share it with the world.  I want to be an instrument of God, sacrificing all that I want, all my dreams, to walk in the Lord.

Sometimes I can barely hear, but cannot make out, the whispers that stir my heart.  I fear that I have forgotten what it’s like to hear His voice with certainty.

I used to know without a doubt.  Now, I doubt every single day.  And it is consuming me.

Nobody ever told me how hard it would be to live for Christ.  But then again, nobody ever told me it would be easy to follow the path He has set out for our lives.

My feet have found their way into the world of disaster response, wildland fire, and conservation.  I believe that God has placed me here for a reason, to learn and to experience all that I can.  And to see both the power (and destructive nature) of his creation and the blessings that pour forth in response to the suffering.  I am learning how to see disasters as marvelous, destructive blessings.  I am in awe as I watch a blackened field regrow into something beautiful once again.  I am constantly surrounded by His creation and the gifts He pours out to us through nature.

So I ask myself why I feel so distant.  I know in my heart that God has (and will) never leave me, so does that mean that I have drifted to far from Him in my journeys?  Have I lost focus on where He is leading me?

I am distracted.  I know it.

I’m distracted by expectations.  By others opinions of how I should live my life.  By what society tells me who I need to be to be successful.  Ambitions.  Wishes.  Hopes.

All I want is to live in the presence of my Father in Heaven.  To be in communion with Him, to know Him on a personal level.  And I want to allow Him to take control and lead me to where I need to be.  Where He needs me to be.

Maybe I’m exactly where He wants me, but I am to distracted by the future to realize the ‘here and now’ of His plans….

Maybe I need to clear my head of everything that has been (and still is) distracting me.  Maybe then I will understand where my feet are being led.

I know I’m not the only one.  I’ve talked to several friends who are going through the same thing, so my prayer is that we can quiet out thoughts and free ourselves to not only listen for the whispers of God, but to follow the pull on our hearts wherever He chooses to lead us.  I pray for clarity and for strength, wisdom and compassion, that we see the needs in those around us and act in accordance with the will of God.

God Bless and PEACE

Why Not?

Over the past four years I’ve answered thousands of questions about my adventures in Uganda, aboard the M/V Africa Mercy, and my time with AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and FEMA Corps.  People always want to know what I did in my time of service both in Africa and across the United States.  They want to hear the stories of adventures throughout the Dark Continent, chasing disasters, and serving others.  But they never seem to ask the most basic question:  Why?

Earlier today, one of my former Corps Members (CM) from AmeriCorps*NCCC – FEMA Corps shared with the world her reasons for serving.  Her words got me thinking about why we find ourselves serving.

Casey is an amazing young woman who I had the honor and privilege of having on my team.  She, like me, is crazy enough to return for a second year as a Team Leader (TL).  I’ve included her blog on my links so everyone can follow her adventures.
:::END NOTE:::

Unlike her, I was not born and raised in a small town, but traveled around the country as my family followed where the Army sent my father.  This constant movement has fed a wonderlust that has defined my life ever since.

My first ventures out of the country landed me in Honduras, serving alongside members of my youth group with Crossing Boarders as we helped dig trenches and lay down pipe to supply running water to the local villages.  I returned the following year alongside my brother and found it satisfying to experience the culture of others and see life from a different perspective.

From that moment, I have been wondering ever since.  From Upper New York State with Young Life’s Saranac Village to Southern Spain, Uganda with Akia-Ashianut to Togo and the M/V Africa Mercy with Mercy Ships, and into my experiences with AmeriCorps*NCCC and FEMA Corps.  Even now I prepare to head to Scotland with family and another year of service alongside AmeriCorps St. Louis.

I’ve never really taken the time to ask myself “Why?”  It’s never been important to me to know.

I serve because my parents taught me to care for others.  When the tornado hit Ft. Steward all those years ago (1996 if I remember correctly), I watched my mother’s simple gestures of sharing coffee and learned that simple acts can change the world.

I travel because it’s in my blood.  Well, to be honest, that is an excuse.  I travel because I’m not tied down to a single place.  My roots have been spread across the country and across the globe and my family (ie: relatives, friends, teammates, etc) is spread to the four winds.

Home has always been where the heart is.

We can get consumed by this simple question: “Why?”  I hate it because I cannot explain the calling of the heart.  I can’t explain the adventure, nor the journey.  I just go, following a calling in my life.

I guess the question we should be asking is “Why not?”

Is it money?  Security?  Complacency?

I learned years ago to live with reckless abandon.  To follow God with every fiber of my being because the alternatives scare my [edited]-less.

I know I’m afraid of settling down.  I haven’t tried to hide the fact that I will always be a nomad at heart.  Serving allows me to continue this adventure.  Chasing disasters, helping people, and that good feeling I get when I pass out from exhaustion after a long day of work are all part of this adventure.

I keep going because I don’t want to find myself looking back at my life and questioning why I didn’t take that chance.

I may never be able to answer these questions, and I am perfectly fine with that.  I guess, in the end, we follow our hearts or let something within us wither away.

Just another rant that I’m gonna blame on my CM.

God Bless and PEACE

The Story Behind the Images

In the summer of 2009 I traveled to Pallisa, Uganda with Akia-Ashianut (Medicine Blessing in the native language of Ateso), a group of 11 other college students who spent four weeks of the summer serving alongside the staff and volunteers of the Agule Community Health Center.  The one building clinic in the Agule Sub-County of Pallisa District was built and is funded by members of the community that it serves who are committed to seeing their community pull itself out of poverty and poor health.

My beautiful picture

I made the journey to Africa in an attempt to tell the story of this community through written words and captured images to share with others back home.  I spent countless hours alongside the medical staff, watching the careful, healing hands of the nurses and listening to the soothing voice of the on staff physician as he addressed the concerns of individuals from the community.  In the evenings, we would sit outside and talk as all the local children flocked around us and pressed in close to see the mzungus (white people).

My beautiful picture

In those conversations, I found myself struggling to tell the story of the community that we were serving.  I felt that it was my job to share the story of the clinic, but couldn’t find the words to do so.  I was troubled by my inability to put all the emotions and feelings that surrounded us into words and soon found myself wandering the grounds of the clinic, camera in hand, followed by a trail of curious children.

My beautiful picture

I began to focus on capturing images of our time at the clinic.  Soon, I found myself talking to Anneka, one of the leaders of the trip, as I shared my frustrations of being unable to find the words to tell the story of this community.  She listened and explained that the people here already had a voice and so did I; those two voices are not the same.  As she said this, I began to realize that the only story I could ever tell was the story of my own experiences in this place.

My beautiful picture

So I began to tell the story of our time at the Agule Community Health Center through the lens of the camera.  I worked to capture the raw emotions of life and death, the daily battle of emotions, and the community that embraced us with open hearts.

My beautiful picture

These images are part of that story.

God Bless and PEACE

Where Lives are Changed…

As many followers of this blog know, I spent the summer of 2010 aboard the M/V Africa Mercy working in the Stewards Department as part of the dining hall crew.  In my time in Lome, Togo and on the voyage down to Durban, South Africa, I had the opportunity to meet and get to know some amazing families, friends and individuals that lived and served aboard the ship.

Recently, CBS News’ 60 Minutes did a piece on the Africa Mercy, Africa Mercy: Hospital of Hope, where they revealed a piece of the story for the ship.

So many lives are changed each day, every week, month, year because of the work that these amazing individuals.  The ship is a place where the blind are returned their sight, the lame learn to walk, and those that have lost their lives are given new hope.  It is a place where miracles happen every single day.

But there is so much more to the story.  From the day workers who come onto the ship each day to the crew that has become so much more than family, this story could fill hundreds of pages and thousands of books through all the lives that have been affected, from patients to crew.

Yes, the mission of Mercy Ships is to serve the poorest of the poor, but so many lives are changed through serving aboard this ship, alongside its crew.  While not everyone has the ability or the skills to be the hands of healing, the hearts of service are evident in all the alumni that have returned home after serving as a housekeeper, in the galley, as a photographer, as an engineer, plumber, or mechanic.

The crew of the M/V Africa Mercy taught me what it was to love.  To truly embrace someone as a brother or sister, no matter who they were.  I grew in my faith and it is still changing me as I continue to remember the lessons that are buried deep within my heart.

I feel as if I have a family that stretches across the nations and I smile when I think of the memories; the laughter and conversations that echoed throughout the nights into the early hours of the morning at times.  I have brothers and sisters that come from all walks of life.

This is the story of Mercy Ships, a family that continues to grow and continues to serve the poorest of the poor around the world.  It’s in the hearts that continue to beat out in love that we find the words and the beginnings of a single chapter of a story that continues to be written through the miracles of modern medicine, faith, and caring hands.

God Bless and PEACE

We Can’t Go Back

I caught the end of the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King today and noticed something that I had overlooked the past hundred times I had watched the movie.  After Frodo finishes his quest to destroy the One Ring, he makes a comment to his fellow hobbits that journeyed with him to the ends of the earth and back.  He simply states “We can never go back.” 

Throughout our journey, we see and experience many things.  For a while, I constantly looked back and wondered why things couldn’t be how they once were.  We can’t go back to how things were before we encountered God. 

When I journeyed to Uganda the first time, part of me wanted to return home like nothing had ever happened.  I didn’t expect a four-week trip to change me, but I didn’t know what I would experience either.  I saw the effects of Malaria, felt them first hand.  I watched as life passed away before my eyes and saw life restored to a dying man. 

I returned home unable to explain what I had experienced.  I could not describe the emotions that tore at me as I tried to move on with my life.  Trying to describe it is a challenge because there is just no way of putting it into words. 

A year later, my journey took me back to Africa as I joined Mercy Ships M/V Africa Mercy in Togo, West Africa.  I remembered how I felt after returning the first time.  I knew that I could never just return.  After spending three months aboard ship, I knew that life would never be the same. 

I returned home knowing that I had changed.  I no longer saw things the way I once had. 

I could no longer think like I used to.  I could no longer just go through the motions.  My eyes were opened to things that I had seen. 

I can’t be the same person I was four years ago.  I have changed.  I can’t explain it.  I no longer see things the same.  I no longer think the same.  Hear the same.  Feel the same. 

I see things now and I react differently. 

The same thing happened through my experiences in AmeriCorps.  In St. Louis and Joplin. 

People that haven’t seen me in years ask how I’ve changed.  I can’t really tell them how, it just is.  I’m not the person I once was, and I can never be that person ever again. 

When we encounter God, the same thing happens.  When we develop and grow in our faith, we can never turn back.  We experience God and become a new creation.  Our old selves die and we are reborn in our faith. 

Yet, I find that many of us are trying to run back to who we were.  We can no longer accept who we were.  It will never satisfy us any more.  Only God will satisfy us now. 

Just some thoughts…

God Bless and PEACE