Stuck in the Middle

For the past decade my life has been stuck in the middle of an ABC family film. ABC Family films, for those of you who are not teenage girls, are poorly casted, poorly acted and poorly plotted romantic comedies where in the middle the leading lady (in our case, me) goes through a lot of life humiliating terrible moments. By the end of the movie she finds her soul-mate in the form of a Christmas Elf/Model or a Truck Driver/Model and they both live happily ever after with their family of future models.

Like I said before, my life is sort of stuck in the middle. I recently moved to Atlanta to live the dream, well to live my dream. I don't know your dream!  Anyway my dream was to move, unemployed, to hood-burbia in a major city (Hot-Lanta) with my newly married sister and her husband and one of my all time favorite cousins. Ok, this wasn't my dream as a five-year-old, but marrying a Latin model has proven harder than my 5-year-old mind fathomed. Dreams change.

I believed we would all get amazing jobs seeking social justice and peace for our new city! Instead, I beat out a line of 16-year-olds to work for $8/hr at a candy store in the mall. It turns out a masters is good for something! I wear a hot pink polo, an apron and a hair net (when I am making items).  I serve ritzy moms who want to buy $4 chocolate bars, and who have clearly never heard of a snickers. When I get home I talk to my only friends, the fam, and then I let my dog sleep in my bed. She smells bad, but she loves me so I make do.

Yesterday, my new pastor, was preaching about believing the whole truth in times trial.  Yes, our circumstances may seem rough, hard or impossible, but God is bigger and has a purpose beyond what we can imagine.  I sat bitterly listening. I know his words are true. I know that God is real and his plans are perfect, but it isn't easy to believe. I am bitter, angry and jealous.  My life is not going how I imagined. I watch my friends receive blessing after blessing while I hand out dark chocolate candies that I can't afford to buy.  I love other people's kids, while trying to let go of dreams of having my own. I pray for your relationship woes while I snuggle up next to my puppy.

So I am bitter, angry and jealous, but I am also ignorant. I am ignorant of the many small ways God is trying to teach my stubborn tail (edited for the holier than me)!  I am ignorant of all the ways God is trying to use me, if I would just let him. I am ignorant of the many angels surrounding and protecting me. And I am so so so very ignorant of the grace that is constantly pouring down over my bad attitude and selfish rights.  Knowing truth is so much easier than believing it, but knowing truth is the first half of the battle. And as you know, I am currently stuck in the middle.  

The day I met Holden Caulfield: A Letter to a Lost Boy

This is a letter to a guy I shall call Holden Caulfield. This letter reflects his actual life, but in a vague and hopefully respectful way. Holden Caulfield, for those of you who are illiterate, is the main character of The Catcher in the Rye. It is a good book. You should read it. There are lots of swear words so be prepared.

Letter to a Lost Boy:

I am so happy that I met you. I instantly liked you, and wanted to understand you, to figure out the life that produced the complexity that sat before me. I learned that sex is your king and pleasure is your God. You strive for happiness, but currently you live in a self-made prison.  You once strove for greatness, but now mediocrity seems a more realistic goal.  You are seeking to find the elusive happiness you used to know.  Because you were happy once—young, wild, and free… running through the woods, living every little boy’s dreams.

Play was your king and dreams were your God. Like a rich Tom Sawyer, you were the envy of every kid.  But as dreams do, when the morning comes, it left only vague shadows and eerie feelings of a childhood too far gone to catch. You tried to go back to sleep and reenter the dream, but the innocence of childhood can never be reentered after it has seen the corruption of the “real world”.  They were supposed to protect you, but instead their fighting became your normal, his beatings the price you had to bear. You became a self-appointed protector of innocence, a modern Holden Caulfield, trying to keep “him” from ever waking up and facing reality.  You took pride in protecting his dreams, sheltering his childhood, the way they were supposed to shelter yours.

In the midst of fighting to protect his innocence, you found your own love, a 16-year-old sweet beauty that shared everything with you. She wanted to keep you forever. And for a while, everything was good. It wasn’t Tom Sawyer in the woods, but it was a sanctuary in the chaos, a security in the storm.  But even the goodness you found couldn’t stop the cruelty of an unfair world.  You couldn’t protect him from the darkness.  Why couldn’t you have saved him?!? In the depth of despair, you realized there was no longer any choice but to face the darkness head on. Maybe you no longer wanted to be afraid of the boogie man, or maybe it was the only way an 18-year-old boy knew how to deal with death: to choose to experience life’s worst, with eyes wide open, as opposed to waiting for it to sneak up on you when you weren’t looking.

In absolute control, you chose to hit bottom, just to see what was there.  Ever a protector of innocence, you couldn’t take her with you, so you entered this new world alone.  Denying yourself no pleasure and keeping no company, knowledge became your king and experiences your god. You went from party to party, high to high, girl to girl, seeking happiness no matter how fleeting you knew it to be. You found pride above the other slum-dwellers, knowing that you had chosen to be there fully aware of the potential consequences.   And it was there that you happily stayed.

Maybe you would have stayed forever, maybe you were waiting, holding out, just to see if they were ever going to come and rescue you.  They never did. You didn’t care, because you were having fun. The thing is, you could barely remember the fun anymore. You would wake up to stories of all the fun you supposedly had, but with no memories of your own. The drugs kept your body awake, fighting back the nightmares, but also blocking the sweet dreams. You eyes gave glimpses of a carefree boy, but your face reflected the age of a hard life. When the image before you finally became more than you bargained for, you forced yourself to leave the security of the pit, and climb back up.

Despite the “I don’t need anyone” attitude you reflected, the first thing you did after you pulled yourself out of the pit, was tell them where you had been.  Covered in dirt and grime with the experiences of life lived too hard, you confessed everything. You told them of your lost innocence, and gave them a chance to say… anything, something, to cry, to be angry, to show disappointment. Despite a life that constantly proved otherwise, you confessed your sins, and prayed they would, this time, just once, treat you like the wayward child you were, that they would be the parents and you would be the child.

But dreams are more often shattered and fairy tales only exist in the movies. You had survived the pit only to reenter your reality, a reality that you now accept that you will never escape. You are a parent to your parents, your innocence lost, your childhood long gone. You have found contentment in the rubble, and have settled for the life of least resistance. You entered yourself into “rehab”, and took up your place as their caretaker. When he died, you grieved, not only for the loss, but also for the father that was never going to be, the dream that never came true. You take care of her, because despite it all, you love her.  You no longer protect innocence, because you know it will never last. Sex has become your god and pleasure your king. Despite walls too thick to ever tear down and experiences that guard you against it, in your eyes I still see a smart, innocent, daring little boy who wants to conquer the world.

Goodbye Weirdos I Used to Know

I have been in the ATL for a total of 3 nights and 4 days. Of course, I have now been to 3 different coffee shops (unemployment is slow to sink in). On yesterday's visit a random old man asked me if I was going golfing. I was confused since I don't think golfers wear nike shorts and tie dyed wife beaters, but who am I to question my new friend's expertise. He, Brad, then invited me to join him golfing... anytime.

I love meeting weird, slightly creepy, people in coffee shops.

I realize I did not get to say goodbye to all of my weird coffee shop friends in Mississippi, so I would like to formally say goodbye to each of my ole Mississippi coffee shop friends.

John: I met John almost 3 years ago. He was wearing a stained, slightly wrinkled plaid shirt that was only partially tucked into his baggy khaki pants. His gray hair was sticking up in every possible way, and he had left over food in the corners of his mouth. He sat down in the leather seat across from me toting about 5 different books.  He then began talking to me for the next 3 hours about politics, philosophy, and religion.  I quickly learned that if John was in a coffee shop with me, I probably wasn't going to get a lot of work done, but was definitely going to leave smarter and more confused.

Wheezie: Wheezie and I were every day acquaintances. We both went to Starbucks every single morning at 8am.  Wheezie is a very large older woman who wore shirts with horses printed on them. She ran a small farm in the country, and raised puppies. Her table was always full of cops, business men and other retired old ladies. She came every morning, rain or shine, and the crowds just knew where to find her. Wheezie's table was sacred. Occasionally I'd arrive to the bux before her, and have to guard her table from being stolen by innocent newbies.  Sometimes we talked and she'd give me life advice or coupons for fabric stores. Mostly we both just respected each other's space and daily routine. Wheezie became a constant in my constantly changing life.

Cowboy:  One day I met an old cowboy. He wore fitted Wrangers, a tucked in shirt, and sported slicked back gray hair. He was always on the phone doing something important, I guess. He saw something about South Carolina in my possession and started talking to me about my great ole homeland. Each  morning, when I left for work, he would tell me I needed to find me a rich man so I could quit my job. After explaining how I was TRYING to get a sugar daddy, cowboy would offer his services, if I was just willing to marry an old man like himself. I loved the cowboy.

There are so many more sweet weird people that became my everyday coffee shop staples: baristas, old hippie men, awkward old men with Aspergers, and countless college and seminary students. I would like to tell each of you that I will miss you. You may have noticed that I have left, or you may not have noticed, either way... peace.

A Week in Cambodia- Pt 3

Wat Phnom:

Everyday we had the privilege to join the HPC staff to host a kid's club at Wat Phnom, the Wat.  The Wat is actually the site of a large Buddhist temple. You can take long winding steps to the top of a hill to make sacrifices to Buddha. Children sell flowers to give to Buddha, and the monks that live there offer prayers. At the bottom of the hill, the experiences of the Wat are very different. A large park area surrounds the temple where vendors sell food and goods, kids run around naked or in worn-out pajamas, and women wait hoping a man will buy them for a while. 

It is with this backdrop that every weekday the staff of HPC hold a Kid's Club. At 2pm kid's begin to arrive at the large gazebo where the club is held. The staff lay out a tarp for kids to sit and play UNO and other games. A large line of older kids forms, as staff members pull out a giant jump rope.  While kids are arriving, everyone just plays.  Babies come naked and the staff puts on diapers. Kids come bruised and bleeding, and the staff does medical care. It's a beautiful sight watching over 20 kids just jump into the rhythm.  

We planned to help with free play, the formal games, and then put on a skit and craft for the kids. On the first day, as we all played, the rains began to fall. People from all over the park, sought our little gazebo for safety. They piled in: pimps, prostitutes, street vendors and shady looking men. I was nervous about how we were going to continue with our Bible skit with this unplanned audience, but the show must go on. Dressed up as silly puppets and a giant dog, we stood before pimps and prostitutes, and talked about the perfect love of the one true God.

Each time at the Wat went in a similar pattern: free play as kids began to come from all over the park, then formal games, then a short Bible skit where we looked ridiculous and Khmer staff had to translate, and lastly a small craft. Kids started to recognize us, and everyone had a favorite child. We observed as one kid came clothed the first day and showed up naked the next, or where everyday girls proudly sported their mix-matched and dirty clothes while holding a baby on their hip. 

The Wat is different from any park I have ever observed in America. Sin is done in the open, and everyone seems to be a potential threat or a potential victim. Despite the darkness of this area, for one hour each weekday at a small gazebo, you can hear dozens of children laughing and playing and hearing about the perfect love of Christ. As our hour ended the kids would line up, pray to Jesus together and then receive their free food. The Wat is a sad and beautiful place, where we are praying for God to do mighty things. 

Thursday, our last day working in Cambodia, seemed to come without warning. One day we were sitting in the Parrish's living room planning Kid's Clubs, and then the next day we were waking up at 6am to head out for our final attempt at ministry in Phnom Penh. 

Our Last Day: 

This day was unique for everyone, both Americans, Khmer staff and students, because we were taking a field trip to a government run orphanage. The director of the orphanage is a big-whig government official. Government officials in Cambodia are not always on the side of justice, so having a government official who looks favorably on your work and ministry is important for getting things done. For the children associated with the Hard Places ministry, government connections can be the difference between living a life of fear and shame versus living a life of freedom and restoration.  

We wanted to bless the children and staff in the orphanage and further strengthen the bond already formed between the director of the orphanage and, Allie, the director of Hard Places. It was decided that we would host a carnival/soccer tournament for all of the kids on the grounds of the orphanage. It was a long, hot and beautiful day as we worked (HARD) herding small kids who know very little english from station to station.  Intellectually, I believe God was doing amazing things that day, and perhaps the rest of the group was having awesome and beautiful moments, but as for me, I mostly felt sweaty, ant bitten/attacked and exhausted. It was a long day, and, even though I knew that our work was so significant and crucial for these children, I was definitely ready when it was time to leave. Caked in dirt, grime and probably countless other things, I prayed for a shower and a clean bed. When we were informed that we had to walk up four flights of stairs and debrief, I was less that ecstatic. 

And then the most beautiful thing happened. The staff that we had been working with all week, the staff that loves on these sweet children everyday, the staff that never leave the poverty, destruction, and darkness surrounding this area, honored us.  Covered in my sweat and bad attitude, I was humbled as they thanked our team for coming and sharing in their burden. Staff members fought to present us each with a traditional Cambodian scarf. There were hugs and pictures and lots of silliness.  After the scarf ceremony they brought in tables of traditional Khmer food. They explained that after a week of trying traditional American foods, it was now time for us to try their treats. 

And so it goes, in a state of joy and ecstasy we popped frogs, roaches, crickets, half hatched boiled duck eggs, pig cakes, and things we didn't even recognize. It wasn't all terrible, but it wasn't all delicious. It was the perfect end to an amazing trip. 

A Week in Cambodia- Pt 2

Our days at the Center- Punok Thmey
Orientation: On Monday it was finally time to begin our work with the Hard Places Boy's Center. Allie the founder and director began with orientation. Since, in the past, people have posed as Christian workers in order to be near children and take advantage of them, we had to sign a commitment to seek the welfare of each child in our care. As workers we are not to post any photos of children on social media, since pedophiles can stream social media sites and find at risk children. The vision of Hard Place's Community is to bring restoration to child victims through running drop-in day centers, daily outreaches in the river districts, and offering English courses for the men in the brothels. Through play and trust children open up about their abuse. Once a child opens up the Hard Places staff are able to take action. It may take a long time to remove a child from a dangerous situation or begin working with a dysfunctional family, but at least the sin is exposed and the process of healing can begin.  We heard countless heart-wrenching stories of abuse and neglect. As we left orientation, eyes were filled with tears and hearts were emboldened to love these kids and the staff that serves them every day.
America Days: The staff of Hard Places Community wanted to do something special to commemorate their 17 American guests, so they created "America Days." Students were divided by ages into six classes. Each class rotated to a different station. It took two days for everyone to attend every station. The goal is to have fun and attract as many new students as possible; hoping that when new students come and feel safe they will attend the center after we leave.

Craft Station- Paint, Streamers, Pipe Cleaners were strewn all over the floor as students made red white and blue hand prints, streamer batons, silly red white and blue paper plate hats, and American flag art. The entire first floor of the center has exploded in red, white and blue. 
Food Station- Hot dogs, Kraft Macaroni n' Cheese, Doritos, Oreos and Cupcakes. The kids got to try different American foods, learn about when Americans eat them, and vote on whether they enjoyed them. Although Kraft Macaroni was not enjoyable for kids, hot dogs and cupcakes were a hit!
American Lesson Station- Many kids in Cambodia believe America is heaven. When you die, you pray to go to Cambodia. This station attempted to teach kids in a fun way about the real America with its own problems and beauty. They discussed past wars, slavery, and school shootings. They also displayed the beauty and diversity of America by showing pictures of the many different people groups who call America home.  
Games Station- A love for games among children is cross-cultural. The sillier the game the better. Kids lined up to participate in egg tosses, potato sack races, water balloon games, and so much more. This room's intensity escalated with each group leaving a little bit messier than the first. 
Sports Station- Cambodian kids love many of the same sports as American children like soccer, volleyball, and even occasionally basketball.  They are not familiar with a couple of America's favorite sports: baseball & football. Josh and Sam and led this group teaching rowdy kids how to play baseball and football. It turns out the rules of football have gotten a little too complicated to explain, especially with a language barrier.  
Ice Station- Cambodia has two seasons, rainy and dry. No matter if it is rainy or dry, it is hot. In this station two of the HPC staff from Michigan attempted to teach the kids about what its like to grow up in the cold. They had activities like chipping huge blocks of ice and using food coloring to let the color sink into the cracks, they made snow cones, and even had a real snow ball fight.  For some reason we decided to put this wild group on the top floor. On the last day, things got crazy, every single staff and student were completely drenched and laughing as water managed to drip four flights down. 

As America days wrapped up, everyone was smiling and laughing, staff included. The HPC staff constantly deal with the abuse of children and its effects. They feel the weight of a corrupt and slow moving government as the children they have grown to love are forced to stay in unsafe places, or when the men they know have harmed their kids continue to prowl the streets.  America days may seem small, but they brought both the Khmer and American staffs together. They were a time of reckless abandon and carefree fun, and for a moment they made the world seem a little less dark.  

A Week in Cambodia Pt 1

We arrived to Cambodia, after over 40 hours of traveling, tired, greasy, and in need of a bed. Instead of sleeping, we began our first full day in the city.
Day 1: It was a blur: After putting our bags in our beautiful hotel, the Monsoon, we went to lunch with the head of the Hard Places Ministry, Alli. We stuffed ourselves on Chinese noodles, dumplings, and duck, while taking in the faces and scenes around us. The streets are filled with motorbikes, tuk-tuks and a few cars. People weave in and out of the crazy traffic. Despite the chaos and the lack of any and all traffic laws, no one is hit.
After lunch, we went for dessert at a pastry shop called Blossom. Blossom is a rehabilitation center for women who have left prostitution. They girls at Blossom learn the trade of baking and cake decorating. The shop is filled with delicious fancy cupcakes and elaborate cakes. After dinner and a walking tour, in the rain, of the city, we were finally allowed to sleep!
Day 2: Let the tours begin: We began our day with an official insider’s look of Phnom Penh. The tour guides from the Hard Places tour company greeted us first thing in the morning. Every one of our tour guides now works full-time with the Hard Places Community. Their walk with the Lord was evident as each tour guide asked how we came to know Jesus, and freely shared his own story of believing.
The Killing Fields: Later that afternoon, we headed to the Killing Fields. Throughout Cambodia, there are mass gravesites, a byproduct of the Khmer Rouge genocide. On our tour of the killing fields we walked past many large holes in the ground that each formerly served as a grave for hundreds of people. In one grave, excavators retrieved the skeletons of a 100 naked women and children. Another burial site was filled with100’s of headless corpses. Since the Khmer Rouge soldiers were poor and bullets were expensive, they resorted to barbaric and cruel ways to kill their thousands of victims. The Cambodian government has erected a large monument on the site of the Killing Fields to honor the bones of the dead. The monument is surrounded by glass so that onlookers can see each tier. The first tier is for the clothes of victims, the next seven house each skull that has been discovered. The excavated skulls have each been marked to show the horrific ways that each victim was killed. The final tiers hold the remaining bones such as jaws, teeth and femurs.
Day 3: A day in the village: We boarded a bus at 6am , and headed to a province outside of the city. It took an hour to navigate the small dirt roads as cows and people blocked the way. Once we arrived, we served with the Hard Places interns as they led games and Bible stories for the 30 kids already waiting. The few adult members of the church reach out to the local children, in hopes of also reaching their parents by extension. After finishing the kid’s time, we were ushered into a small cement building for church. It was unbelievable experience to hear the walls of this small concrete building echoing the sounds of both Khmer and English singing full-heartedly, Here I am to Worship.
When it was cool enough, about 98 degrees, we went with church members around the village to conduct home visits. Our large group of both Khmer and white people naturally attracted attention. People would stop to stare, but as we approached, they would pull up every chair they owned and invite us to sit. We prayed with and for each home, and as we left each house more and more people were added to our number. The day ended with a tour of the Buddhist temple. The temple is not as elaborate as Ankor Wat in Siam Reap, but the collection of ancient rock built temples is still both sad and beautiful.