Spiritual Life

Orthodox Christmas Eve

Thanks to the Julian calendar, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7. That means Christmas Eve, an even more important holiday to than to Protestants, falls on January 6.

Because Jordan and I were in Belgrade, Serbia we got to celebrate Christmas Orthodox-style! We were both so excited to experience Christmas in a way so different than our own.

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Belgrade has their own small Christmas market, which we strolled through ever day on the way to volunteering. I admired the candy stalls and mulled wine stands, wishing we had more money and time to enjoy them.

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And finally, Christmas Eve came at last.

Christmas has only been celebrated publicly since the fall of Communism, and so isn’t as commercialized or shown at large. They have Santa, of course, as well as Mariah Carey playing over the PA system in stores, but it’s not as big as what you’ll find further west, like North America. In some ways, I thought this was better.

Christmas is celebrated at home, sometimes at church, with a few gifts exchanged and a hearty breakfast with family. Christmas Eve can be spent with friends or extended family members.

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Around 11 pm on Christmas Eve Jordan and I went to St. Sava’s Temple, one of the oldest and most famous Orthodox churches in Belgrade. Attending midnight mass is a time-honored tradition among Serbians, as well as burning badnjak in a community bonfire.

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Traditionally, each family has an oak log or branch chosen for their holiday tradition. In Belgrade, where few families have forests to walk through, nor fireplaces or bonfires, families typically pick branches up at the supermarket and burn them at the bonfire at St. Sava’s. The badnjak is very similar to the yule log  of other European lore.

Jordan and I hadn’t bought a badnjak, so we enjoyed the heat of the bonfire while everyone else threw their branches in, laughing and singing and joking loudly.

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Firecrackers and little fireworks went off everywhere. The loud noises and pops so close to the ground alarmed me at first, especially when I saw one firework spraying sparks into the nearby hedge. But no one else seemed to care. I think it was a combination of holiday cheer, beer, and the nonchalance leftover from wartime.

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We wanted to attend Orthodox mass at midnight, but the line to get into the church was already long, and I was sick and probably shouldn’t have been out in the weather at all. So we instead looked up and enjoyed the fireworks.

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It was a lot of fun. Upon returning home we realized the music and firecrackers weren’t going to stop until late into the night. I think I finally fell asleep around three, when things quieted down. The next morning, Orthodox Christmas Day, everything was peaceful and sleepy as you could imagine.

Next time we celebrate Orthodox Christmas, I’m getting a badnjak for us.

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Christmas far from home

This is my second Christmas outside the United States, far from friends and family.

And honestly, it’s a little rough. I never meant to spend two consecutive Christmases from my youngest brothers (they’re not even teenagers yet and I miss them terribly).

Being far from home has definitely made me more appreciative of carols and anything remotely familiar about Christmas. I’ve always loved Christmas carols, but now I play them constantly–and before Thanksgiving. I’m not in the US, I reason, so I don’t have to abide by that silly rule anyway. 🙂 I’ve written in the past about how much carols mean to me, but they’re extra special this season, for the same reason as this man’s blog post.

A couple of weeks ago, when we first arrived in Serbia, I was admiring everything Christmas I could see–the obnoxious advertisements, the skinny teenage boys dressed up in Santa gear, the blatantly commercialized shop displays with outrageous ornaments and gaudy decoration. I think it may have concerned Jordan a bit (I usually complain about the commercialization of Christmas), so he found an English-speaking Anglican church in Belgrade and surprised me with it.

“They’re having a special Advent service,” he told me.

Music to my ears. It was the best Christmas gift he could’ve given me.

Even with its loneliness, being away for Christmas is its own gift. Being far from my familiar, comforting traditions, I have to search for a deeper meaning, something new that I can’t fall back on like a cozy sweater or blanket. I’m reminded once more how lonely Mary and Joseph must’ve felt, going all the way to Bethlehem themselves, finding every door shut in their face, worried about the coming child and what to do.

Jordan and I have shown up in cities with our backpacks, no map, no reservation, and struggled to find a place for the night. But we’ve never done it while in labor, or done it because the ruling government forced us into a census.

Volunteering with these refugees has shown me, again, how much I have to be thankful for. I’m reminded, as I look at these lined faces, these tired eyes, that Jesus was a refugee.

When the Holy Family fled to Egypt, they traveled a well-worn route, Joseph seeking employment and all three fleeing the massacre of the innocents. They weren’t the only family trying to get to safety. In fact, they probably came across other families and groups along the way, just like the refugees today.

Today as I was looking at the five or six boys under age 10 waiting in line for soup, I saw young Jesus. I looked at the teenagers with their ill-fitting sweatshirts and wispy mustaches, and saw Jesus traveling to Jerusalem with his family and even later, during his ministry as a homeless rabbi. I looked at the young men, often letting the little boys cut in front of them in line, and thought of Joseph, doing his best to keep his young family safe, even if it meant leaving their homeland, family, and language behind.

I miss my home, my friends and family, and my language, too–but I’m privileged because I chose to be away. I’ve never felt connected to Joseph before, but suddenly I saw him in all the faces passing by me.

Jesus was a refugee as a child and homeless as an adult. That thought keeps echoing through my mind on Christmas Day. Hopefully it is a truth that will stick with me through the rest of the year.

Categories: Serbia, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Our Future plans (explanation)

So you already know we’re going to volunteer with Syrian refugees for five weeks. Let me tell you the backstory of how that happened.

Ever since the Arab Spring in 2011, I have been trying to follow Syria’s civil war (this was before most Americans knew about ISIS). I wanted to help, but I wasn’t an aid worker. I was in college, preparing for a wedding, trying to figure out if I could afford grad school. But I often looked for more news as the years went on. Still, I never donated money because 1) I wasn’t always sure which organizations were legit, and 2) We were living hand to mouth a lot of the time. I didn’t have extra money to donate.

Right before we left for Korea in November 2015, we were invited to a Halloween party. I was excited–it was hosted by my best friend, and we take our historical costumes quite seriously. I drove to JoAnn’s Fabric Supply and bought materials to go as Robin Hood and Maid Marian. It was so much fun. I borrowed my friend’s sewing machine, got to use skills my grandmother taught me, and even took a weekend trip to visit my mother-in-law so she could help me with her serger. We bonded, it was a blast, I had a lot of fun. I don’t regret any of that.

Then I realized how much money I’d spent on Halloween costumes: $190. Yep. A lot of money.

That same night, I saw on the news that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing in Hamlet in London. After the curtain fell on Oct 12, 2015, Cumberbatch gave a short speech, urging British citizens to lobby their government, to get involved, and to do whatever they could to help the Syrian refugees. He said, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark….You have to understand that no one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

I immediately felt chastened. I had just spent $190 on something as trivial as a Halloween costume when I had been so morally indignant about the plight of Syrian refugees and how no one seemed to care about them. I cried on the way home from the Halloween party, coming face to face with my own hypocrisy. Jordan and I both promised to do better. He asked if we could donate money as soon as we got jobs and a steady inflow of cash again, and I agreed.

We came to Korea, and exactly one month after the actor’s speech, on November 13, Paris was attacked by ISIS insurgents. We read online in horror, struck by the blood and the death and the grief just like our fellow Americans back home. We thought, “something has to be done. France needs to change their security systems. And we need to make sure that ISIS doesn’t kill anyone else, be they French or Syrian or Lebanese or American.”

The very next day, there was a massive outcry against accepting refugees. Although none of the Paris attackers were refugees, suddenly, both of our facebook news feeds were filled with fear and alarm that all the refugees coming to America were really terrorists in disguise. Then I saw this facebook post: “Obama says that it is our moral obligation to take in these Syrian refugees that terrorists WILL infiltrate. Question today about the legality of state governors refusing to allow the federal government to place refugees within their states…

Hear this: Whether or not it is legal for us to refuse refugees in [my state], when I hear of the bus coming into this state full of these refugees I and those who are like-minded will be at the border, armed to the teeth. I will not tolerate my family being intentionally placed into harm’s way.

And our jackass president can take his moral obligation and shove it.”

My jaw dropped. This came from someone I respected, a mild-mannered, quiet Christian I had looked up to. He had been fed misinformation and lies and then reacted in a violent manner.

Jordan barged into the bedroom, upset from things on his newsfeed, too. “Don’t they know those memes about thousands of refugees landing in New Orleans and escaping are false?” he demanded. “Don’t they know there’s a vetting system already in place, and America’s got the best vetting process in the world?”

I shook my head. “The posts with the strongest language, the loudest critique, are coming from Christians. I don’t know what to do.”

“I do!” Jordan declared. “We’re going to help Syrian refugees.”

And so, after 12 months of praying and planning and thinking, we are doing just that. We hope to be very open and post often about the work we’re doing and the people we meet in December and January. We welcome questions, concerns, and more either on facebook, this blog, or in private messages. We only ask that you keep things civil and respectful.

Categories: Lost in Translation, Serbia, South Korea, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Our Future plans

Jordan and I have been very vocal in our support of Syrian refugees and how the world (and especially the Church) should welcome them. We’re excited to say that we’re finally putting our money where our mouth is!

For five weeks Jordan and I will be in Belgrade, Serbia to work with the Syrians seeking asylum.

What led us to this decision? For me personally, a  Halloween costume, Benedict Cumberbatch, and a facebook post. It sounds like the beginnings of a bad joke. (Maybe it is.) But God has used these three things to take me here today. More on that in a different post.

Post script: We had already made some of our plans before the results of the 2016 election, but based on the president-elect’s First 100 Days plan in response to immigration from war-torn regions, we’ve decided it’s even more important that we act.

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Post-election thoughts

Dear non-Americans,

I’ve seen your protests, (Tel Aviv and London are two) and I share your concern.

I’ve thought long and hard on what I want to say, and it’s really just: You are heard. By me. By other expats. By millions of Americans. I would like to offer a sincere apology for what we’re about the unleash on the world.

Not all Trump supporters are racists or bigots at heart, and they have legitimate complaints with the way the country has been run for the past 25-ish years. Complaints and grievances that absolutely should be addressed and corrected without ridicule. Unfortunately, Trump cares about Trump, not about addressing those real concerns. What you (and I) have learned, however, is that while most Trump supporters would never hurl racial slurs at someone on the street, they’re okay with turning a blind eye to others that do it.

We’re going to work on that. Just like the British are connecting with their own citizens after the Bexit hate crime spike, just like Filipinos are working to save one another from Duterte’s harsh punitive policies, just like much of western Europe is working on their response to the refugee crisis, just like Egypt is fighting tooth and nail against ISIS.

This worldwide rise in ethno-nationalism and fascism is troubling. But I refuse to give up hope. With compassion and understanding for all Americans, we’re going to hold the line and stand in the gap. Non-American friends, you can help, too.

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Day in the life of working with refugees

Guest post by: Brynna L.

Waking up in Greece is a wonderful experience. But waking up to the knowledge that your goal today is to bless people who are overlooked by the world and are overwhelmingly grateful for every kindness is an entirely different kind of wonderful.

I woke up at eight o’clock, per usual, to have time to myself and to prepare spiritually for the day. As my fellow volunteers migrated from bedrooms toward the main part of the house, I enjoyed our heartfelt greetings and offers of shared breakfasts. I reflected on my surprise that, by the beginning of week two in a house with 12 other women, this introvert was nowhere near the overwhelmed breakdown she had anticipated when she arrived to find such a small house filled with so many volunteers. In normal circumstances, I could never have handled it, but these were not normal circumstances! These were not sorority sisters or college roommates. These were skilled women with hearts of gold who traveled across the world in response to cries of help from a struggling people. Their love and desire to serve was not about to be broken by clashing personalities or petty quarrels. This was a volunteer role requiring selflessness and emotional support all around.

As eleven people got into two five-seaters (and this is a European’s idea of a five-seater, not the American five-with-room-for-ten-seater) we had the last volunteer in pile the supplies on top of the ones already seated (who needs rear view windows anyway, right?). We knew the drill, and most of these women had spent the last hour hauling the daily supplies up from the store room to make sure babies would have diapers and moms would have some nutritious food. Then we were ready for our day!

Though our house was always full of laughter and shared meals in the mornings and nights, car rides to and from the camp were usually quiet. Not from awkwardness, but from the need to prepare ourselves for or to talk ourselves through the day we had just had. Each car went to a different camp and each camp had its own personality. Today I would go to a smaller camp, and also my favorite. Though less supplied, dirtier, and with only one other NGO permanently in place besides ourselves, this camp had captured my heart. The refugees who had been placed in this camp were Kurdish and, as a people group who have been oppressed and discriminated against for generations, there was less formal education and fewer English speaking refugees.

We drove through the gate and walked to the Greek military guard house to show our passports and with which NGO we were affiliated. Our day would be from 10-4, and our team divided into two tents. One tent was for our infant feeding specialists, consisting of midwives and lactation consultants, and in the other tent was our baby Hamam (bath house) volunteers. Here we kept a constant kettle of hot water going to provide baby baths so mothers could have a time of bonding and a clean environment to bathe their little ones.

Our NGO goal was to care for mothers and children under two years old, to provide education, lactation support, diapers, ready-to-feed formula if needed, and some weekly food packs for moms. It was our way to care for these people and show them that they were not completely abandoned.

When we got to our tent, we would assess the tent’s most recent child-inflicted damage and clean up any knocked over drawers or supplies. Though we locked up the tent every evening, one can do a lot of damage by kicking the outside or climbing to the top of the tent. We swept and organized, while early-bird mothers occasionally came for diapers. We never wore shoes in the tent and had a mat at the door, but we still couldn’t keep the floors very clean. Fortunately, however, it had not rained last night, so we were spared the hour-long ordeal of mopping and moving equipment around. We unloaded the supplies from the car, and I hid the food under a sheet as I carried it into the tent. A coworker explained to me when I first arrived that even the best of people find it hard to watch food being given to a mother just because she has an infant when their own 3-year-old is hungry. No one blames the grumbling and discontent of parents who are worried for their children, but we didn’t have the resources to give food to everyone, and our NGO was for mothers of 2-year-olds and under. To avoid causing trouble, we were discreet.

Next, we filled our eight water jugs for the Hamam, five gallons each, and carried them back to the tent (sore shoulder much?). As I rested from this I looked around at the camp full of people whom I was coming to know and love. Each family with their joys and sorrows, with their qualities and their flaws, with love and pains just like me. They are all waiting to be accepted into a country that will welcome them as people in need, not as an inconvenience.

The first impression I got of this camp is hopelessness. Tents lined up in rows inside a warehouse labeled with a letter for each row and a number in the row. Each family, usually of 5-7 people with the possessions they were able to carry in their flight from Syria, were living in tents less than a foot apart. The air of purposelessness and hopelessness is stifling. One wants to give them an occupation, but refugee status doesn’t allow them to make any attempt to earn money.

The women, looking tired and sad, clean their tents, cook food, and wash clothes all day, sometimes with the help of husbands and young daughters. Day to day, I saw the transition from two mindsets; one of hope, that surely after seven months of the torment of life in the tents, it won’t be much longer! But another of tired hopelessness: working all day with no chance for improvement, watching children without education disobey and fight, and self-conscious shame at their lack of control in this hectic environment. These women are tired and insecure, but they have a purpose and are kept busy. I surprised myself by finding I had an almost greater pity for the men.

I watched from morning to night while fathers and young men walked aimlessly around the camp, looking dejected and weak. They are stripped of the ability to protect and provide for their families. With no control over the future, they are unable to earn money and are culturally awkward with housework. I couldn’t imagine the lack of purpose they were suffering under. Young men with no way to learn a trade or prepare for a wife and children milled around. They behaved like children, unable to become anything more, in this stifled and stagnant life. The future is completely blank to them as they rely solely on the political decisions of foreign countries who seem to only dislike and fear them.

The children had school some days, provided by an NGO, which lasted for an hour a day. When not engaged in this activity, there was a general crowd of children, ages 3-10, who ran around the camp without regard for adults or infants, playing in whatever fashion they chose. As we have all seen in children play can often be more fun if it is destructive, so our NGO tent was often under attack. Fights between the children, who continually felt the stress of their parents, were constantly breaking out and some were so in need of attention and affection that they would cling to us and cry when we had to let them go. This cycle of people in pain creating more pained people was very difficult to bear each day. It was hard work as a volunteer to maintain a joyful and encouraging demeanor when I was completely unable to give them what they truly needed, a place of safety from war, where they could create a home.

This cycle of people in pain creating more pained people was very difficult to bear each day. It was hard work as a volunteer to maintain a joyful and encouraging demeanor when I was completely unable to give them what they truly needed, a place of safety from war, where they could create a home.

In the children, however, were also some of the first glimpses of hope. In the children who carried the full responsibility of their younger siblingss, I saw the tending and protection of the natural human capacity for love. They showed me their ability to forget all the pain in little moments of joy and small pleasures. Children showed their desire to help, to learn, to be loved and their unfailing desire and ability to love other people. This was how I saw the joys and sorrows of the camp.

Mothers came to us for a moment of rest, a cup of tea, to get supplies and, on a good day, a piece of clothing for their children. Fathers would sometimes come too, proudly carrying their little ones and yet humble to receive our help. Children were always around u,s being their complicated selves, one moment tearing holes in our tent then, when caught and scolded, hugging my neck as though they would never let me go.

I spent my days at our small Hamam tent, and the beauty I saw there nearly made me forget the pain outside. A baby who doesn’t know anything of life can sometimes draw us out of our own weary cares and remind us that joy, in its simplest form, will always be available to us. Mothers seemed to be really at peace for a moment when they were able to step away from their troubles and just care for their little ones. Sometimes, if we weren’t busy, they would just step into the feeding tent and breastfeed for a while and have a quiet respite. In these moments every pain and discomfort was made beautiful for me. Knowing that just showing up, cleaning, unpacking, filling jugs, and the constant up and down of cleaning baby tubs and refilling water was not just busy work. They were the building blocks that created this moment of tranquility and a mother’s ability to have time with her baby.

I never spoke with any of these moms, the children knew more English, but to say “Hello” and “How are you?” There was something so much deeper than words to every encounter. These mothers had so much gratitude and gave it so freely. We were always being given food and coffee and invited to their tents for lunch. Though my first impulse was always to refuse, knowing that food for them was scarce, I soon came to see that the joy of giving cannot be only one sided. Everyone needs to help others and feel the gratitude of those they helped! I can only hope they felt our gratitude as much as we basked in theirs.

After a long day, I was always tired. The car ride home was quiet as we each processed our many emotions,  and thought about the men, women, and children who had welcomed us into their homes and lives in their most vulnerable time. I was always ready to go back. Every day was a new, beautiful adventure and every day I further realized a beauty in humanity that I would never have been able to see in my routine, comfortable life at home.

God did not call Christians to a life of protecting ourselves or our prosperity. Though I don’t feel called politically to change policies or to write petitions, I can still serve God in the way he has called me. As a normal Christian living my normal life, how can I use the knowledge of people suffering around the world to serve and glorify God? By giving of my time and money to bless and share the gospel with people in my life and community. There may be Syrian families resettled in your town, or there may be people living in a cycle of poverty or abuse. We will always be surrounded by people in need and we are ALL (no matter how ineffective we may feel) uniquely gifted to serve people and honor God. As Christ washed the feet of his disciples so should we be living!

What will you change? Who will you serve? What new joy is God calling you into? Be prayerful, my brothers and sisters! Life becomes so much deeper and people so much more valuable when we meet them in this way, not for what they can do for us, but for what we can do for them.

Note: There are currently 57,000 refugees waiting in Greece for their asylum papers to be processed, over half are women and children. Because they registered in Greece, not any other country, they must stay until their claims have been processed, which can take over a year. Until then, they live in camps as described in this blog post.

Categories: Lost in Translation, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Why I believe in social justice

“I appreciate your passion for politics and subcultures,” someone recently told me. It wasn’t exactly a compliment based on other things that were said, but I was troubled for a different reason.

I had spoken out over an #Alllivesmatter “news article” published by the ConservativeTribune, explaining that it was rather inflammatory considering several unarmed black men had recently been killed by police, and that this website strays pretty close to the Alt Right movement. And while the response to my comment was tolerant, at least, it bothered me.

Because I don’t speak out about #Blacklivesmatter because it’s a hot topic or a political issue. I don’t think the “liberal media” is driving me into a frenzy, or that I have to be knowledgeable about stuff because I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in international affairs.

Okay, yeah, obviously, I like politics. I like debating and sharing and discussing ideas. But that’s not why I speak out, nor why I believe in social justice.

The Christian Right, for better or worse, has been tied to the Republican party for the last 40ish years, and are a pretty vocal bunch. Unfortunately, because some of these social justice ideas (prison reform, welfare aid, education reform, etc) are championed more by the Democrats than Republicans, many Christians immediately view it as suspect.

I once read an article basically saying Christians had no business even using the phrase “social justice,” let alone getting involved, because the word “social” came from Marxist “socialism” and is therefore heretical to anything Christian. (This is where I could go on a very, very long rant about how American Christians hold onto their Republican/American identity more than they care about their Christian identity, but I’ll try to end that here).

I didn’t speak up about that news article because it disagreed with my political beliefs. It did, but that’s not why. I spoke up because I believe that every human is made in the image of God and deserve dignity and respect. I spoke up because my faith demands that I point out injustice (By the way, the Hebrew word for justice doesn’t actually mean what most Americans think it means. Christian political scientists differentiate between two types of justice: restorative/primary justice, and punitive justice. We’ve forgotten than the Bible refers to both, not just punitive).

Contrary to some family members’ opinions, I don’t oppose Trump because I’m a flaming liberal (actually, I’m still registered as a Republican, but I feel no compulsion to vote for someone just because they have a red R by their name). I don’t consider myself liberal, nor a Democrat. I’m independent and a centrist. And I got that way because I read Deuteronomy, Numbers, Psalms, Jeremiah, the minor prophets, the gospels, Ephesians, and James. I became that way by reading about Christian martyrs and leaders through the years.

Don’t knock on social justice, guys. Christians have long been involved in movements that expanded personal freedoms and justice to oppressed people, and  they did it not because it was a convenient political tool, but because they believed that to be true to their faith, they needed to act.

As a Christian, it is a lifelong journey to view and review my political and social beliefs in light of what the Bible actually says. If I’m not careful, I can cherry pick any verse to support whatever cause I want. I can focus on the few times the Bible talks about marriage and divorce (important topics, yes) and build my entire one-issue voter profile and support, or I can view those verses alongside the hundreds of times God called the Jews and Christians to care for the stranger, the widows, the orphans, the vulnerable in our midst. And I can adjust my political beliefs accordingly (Okay, so maybe I have more in common with the Evangelical Left than I thought–and yes, they do exist).

This isn’t about political issues. This is about human beings.

This isn’t to draw a line a divide evangelicalism from social justice. I think we can work together, learn from each other, and even learn from each other’s different interpretations of Scripture. An example:

All my life, I grew up listening to the Widow’s Mite story in the gospels, learning that it was important to sacrifice everything for Christ, even my financial comfort. The widow was praised for her trust and sacrifice, and it was pretty clear that one day, I should hope to do the same. This is good, true, theology. (The Christian Right does a decent job focusing on the theology of a person’s relationship with Christ)

Then, when I was 22, I moved and started looking for a new church. Our first Sunday at an Anglican church had the Sunday Bible study meeting about the Widow’s Mite. “Okay, I grew up with this, I know the drill,” I thought. But instead I was taken through commentaries, translation of Greek words, and the religious/social customs of 1st century Jerusalem. And then I learn that Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees, the elite religious leaders, for creating a system of oppression, for forcing the woman to tithe her last mite rather than taking care of her in her old age. This was a scathing review of how the religious group focused on their own needs rather than ministering to their community, like synagogues are supposed to. (The Christian Left does a pretty decent job of focusing on the theology of a person’s relationship with the rest of the world).

So, which one’s right? Which one has more truth to it? If you were reading the last two paragraphs trying to pick apart one argument, you missed the point. Both are true and important to learn.

So why do I believe in social justice?

Simply put, because Jesus tells me to.

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I’m a migrant worker

Expats and immigrants–what’s the difference?

Grammatically speaking, expatriate is a verb or adjective, describing a person living in a foreign country. Immigrant is a noun, describing a person who has moved permanently to a foreign country.

Legally speaking, expats have an easier time moving between borders, getting visas, and doing business with multinational countries. Immigrants, as defined by many governments, don’t usually get those luxuries.

 

self_made_expats

First photo of a person in my Google images search of “expats”

 

Colloquially, expat conjures up images of growing wealth, technology, banking, ambition, education, and success. When I think of the word “expat,” I think of the people living in high-rise apartments in Dubai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and other growing cities. But the word “immigrant” or worse, “migrant worker,” makes people think of illiterate tomato farm workers, poor families fleeing economic hardship, the obstinance of grandmothers refusing to let go of the “old ways,” and a situation I don’t really want to find myself in. As an American, when I hear “immigrant,” I think of Mexican housekeepers, Nigerian janitors, and Indian gas station workers.

 

immigrants

This was the third photo from my Google images search “immigrants today”

 

 

That’s a problem, isn’t it?

How we use words matters. Government regulations about visas, passports, and borders definitely add to the problem of Westerners freely flitting from country to country while the Global South struggles to keep up. But they aren’t the only perpetrator. Words matter, because words shape the story we tell ourselves about how the world works and how it got this way. To tell a narrative you need words. To use words you need a voice. So let’s think back to those images of expat and immigrant. Those people in the high-rise apartments, when you imagined them–were they white? And the immigrants–were they anything but brown or Asian?

 

Migrants

Top image from my Google images search, “migrant worker”

 

Basically, white (or those of North American/European descent) get to be expats, but everyone else has to be immigrants. In a few of my grad classes at FSU I had a classmate who was Kenyan. He and his wife had moved to the US to pursue PhDs together. Based on the official definition at the start of this blog post, they should be expats. But they’re black, so Westerners call them immigrants.

And what about me? I moved to South Korea for economic betterment. I needed a job, and Korea would pay me more that the US would. I live in South Korea now, working and trying (and usually failing) to assimilate into Korean culture. By definition, I should be called an immigrant. Actually, I should probably be called a migrant worker (under United Nations legal code, my status is skilled migrant worker). But I’m American, and I’m white. So I get to be called an expat.

One blogger made the point that expats have fewer expectations on them, because they may not live in their host country permanently (as opposed to an immigrant), and that’s fair to make. I’m not expected to learn Korean, have an intimate understanding of the food, or fit seamlessly into the culture. So in that sense, yes, I’m definitely an expat. While lower expectations for expats isn’t necessarily a problem, it does seem hypocritical that expats hail from countries that have infamously difficult expectations for immigrants.

There are (thankfully) exceptions to this social rule that only Westerners get to be expats. But they are only exceptions.

There’s not much I, personally, can do about this, but to admit that I get a fancier title just because of where I was born and the shade of my skin. And though it doesn’t mean much, here’s my words, my tiny voice in the narrative:

I’m a migrant worker. 

 

 

 

 

Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Keeping my heart soft

I love travelling abroad because it allows me to experience new ideas, cultures, people, and more. It’s awesome. Except for when it’s not. Like, for example, when we experience racism.

As a white woman I’ve experienced sexism at home and abroad, and I’ve also experienced a bit of racism overseas. Sometimes it comes in this really obvious and uncomfortable form of white privilege (“You are white! You get the best seats in the restaurant!” or “Look! The white person thinks this shop is better than the others. Let’s go see what she’s doing”).

Sometimes it comes in ambiguous form of a shopping attendant stalking me around the grocery store, watching every move I make (Does she think I’m going to steal from the store because I’m white? Does she think because I’m white/foreign I will need help reading labels? Is she trying to provide superior customer service to the white girl? Leave me alone!)

And sometimes it’s the abrupt, ugly, faceless side of racism usually experienced through institutions and systems. No one’s spewing racial epithets in my face, no one’s flashing obscene gestures because of my skin tone, but I still get the short end of the stick because I’m an immigrant/expat.

**Quick aside: I haven’t experienced a bad, racist situation in Korea. Koreans as a whole are extremely polite, formal, and kind people. I’m also white, which most Koreans view as an “okay ethnicity.” My fellow immigrants/expats who are of African or Arab descent are more likely to have hurtful experiences because of their ethnic origins.**

Still, there are definite issues with systemic racism in Korean government and culture. For example, if I have a problem with my employer and need legal advice, there is a government agency set up with English teachers in mind for me. However, there are plenty of stories of grievances and concerns being brushed aside. Or if they are taken seriously, the judge might set a court date beyond my visa expiration so I can’t attend my own case in court.

As a foreigner new to Korea, I am immediately at a disadvantage in Korean society. I know their alphabet, but I don’t know their language. I don’t know the ins-and-outs of political games. I don’t have a neighbor who knows a lawyer who could help me. I lived a somewhat insular and isolated life, often surrounded by other people who are just as disconnected as I am. It’s no one’s fault–that’s just life. It happened to me when I moved to Florida, where I didn’t know a single soul and my car broke down. Jordan and I had to rely on the kindness of strangers and a decent towing company the same weekend we showed up in Tallahassee (yes, it was stressful). And that was in our own country! So you can imagine how much more difficult being in a foreign culture/country is.

Now, it would be very easy for me to look at the problems in Korea and complain. “These awful Koreans!” I could sneer. “They treat foreigners terribly. How dare they do that to fellow human beings! I deserve better treatment!” I could huff and complain about their faults (and they do have faults) and swear, “America is better! I’m going home as soon as I can.”

That would be easy. That would be the emotionally “safe” approach. It would also be the wrong one.

Because the truth is: the only reason America treats me better is because I’m an American citizen. I’m also not an ethnic minority in my country. If I were an immigrant/expat in the United States I would be receiving the same (if not worse) treatment at the hands of the American government.

The honest truth is that being an immigrant anywhere is hard. And I’ve got one of the easier experiences for reasons I’ve already listed.

So I have a choice. When faced with systemic racism, when watching a really negative, wrong experience unfold, I could harden my heart. I could hold onto my anger and seethe, pointing fingers at all the things the Koreans do I disagree with.

Or, instead, I could keep my heart soft. I could funnel the anger I feel at injustice into something productive and helpful. Stoking anger at the Korean government whenever I see a slight (and to be clear, I haven’t seen very many) might give me energy, but it won’t help me fix Korea’s problems. What it can do, however, is grant me empathy toward others in similar (or worse) situations than I am in.

Hardening my heart means walking away from Korea with frustration taking up more space than it should. Softening my heart means processing my hurt and accepting that injustice occurred, but I don’t have the power to do anything about that particular instance. Hardening my heart means focusing on my own pain. Softening my heart means looking for opportunities to feel others’ pain with them because I know exactly how it feels. Hardening my heart means condemning Korea for their problems and ignoring my own country’s problems. Softening my heart means acknowledging that racism and xenophobia are a worldwide, human problem. Hardening my heart means comforting myself with indignation. Softening my heart means using my experience to ease the path of immigrants in the US.

Keeping my heart soft is difficult. It makes it vulnerable, open to more hurt in the future. So this is definitely a work in progress for me. You’re welcome to encourage me in my path or point out missed opportunities as we go along.

My time in Korea overall is positive. I don’t want people to read this post and end with the thought, “Wow, Adrianne sounds miserable over there.” Because I’m not. I’m loving the chance to actually live abroad and explore a culture vastly different from my own. Overall I have had wonderful, positive, and friendly encounters with Korean people and I haven’t personally experienced much discrimination by institutions.

Still, living in an isolated rural village without access to a car is hard at times. Not knowing the language is rough, though I’m trying to bridge some of the gap there. So when we return to the States, where everything is easy for us (we know the language, we know the customs, we own a car, we have social networks to keep us from disaster, etc), I’m definitely going to try to offer kindness and social support for immigrants in the United States.

We all need a kind smile and a helping hand some days, especially us immigrants.

Categories: South Korea, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A call for unity: My election thoughts (so far)

So how ’bout this election cycle, hmm?

This will certainly make it in the history books.

I’m intensely interested in politics, though I try to keep my political rants to a minimum on social media. But I’m breaking my half-silence to talk about unity. And yes, Trump. Because, unfortunately, no one can say anything this election cycle without talking about him. But I want to make this post more about unity, if that’s okay with you.

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This election has been the most divisive and rhetoric-filled in my short memory (Clinton became president right after I learned to walk), but I’m pretty sure it’s been quite a while before I can remember as well. When Trump announced his candidacy, no one was really sure what to make of it. Was it a joke? Satire on the current political climate? Publicity stunt? A way to push moderates to Hillary in the general? None of us really thought it was for real. Probably not even Trump. I laughed when I heard and immediately wrote him off.

“He won’t win the presidency,” I assured my non-American friends. “He won’t even win the Republican primaries.” Well, here’s me now crossing my fingers and hoping still that he won’t win the primary.

Anger over the current establishment, both at the federal level and at party level, have reached record highs over the past few years. Pundits point to the rise of a candidate as a celebrity (Obama in 2008) and the emergence of the Tea Party in the Republican party. We all know the Republican party has been fracturing for years now, the party elites ignoring the base. In their (little) defense, however, who even is their base anymore? Evangelical Christians, once the bulwark of the party from 1980s onward) are shifting and changing stances. The party is hemorrhaging Latinos and other minorities over hardline stances on immigration reform (or non reform). The log cabin Republicans and other moderates are increasingly tired of putting up with “traditional values.”  For a decade or so scholars have lamented the “polarization of American politics.

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So perhaps we shouldn’t have been so shocked when Trump swooped in and capitalized on the grievances and anger felt by a large swath of the American public. What I mean to say is, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so shocked. After all, Nikabrik turned to a second-best candidate in Prince Caspian.

But here I am and here we are, and here the American electorate is. While I believe that many of the people have good reason to feel disenfranchised from the economy and politics, what they do with this anger is even more important.

I am seriously concerned right now for the US.  Trump has whipped the latent anger into a frenzy, coaxing rage into nonsensical action. We were already divisive before. Some of my conservative friends say “liberal extremists are dangerous for this country.” Some of my liberal friends say “all Republicans are idiots and racists.”

My conservative friends:  “The Liberals” do not get together in a back room and plot how to take down America.

My liberal friends: The Republicans aren’t trying to keep us in the Dark Ages or destroy all the progress we’ve made as a nation.

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We can and should clash with ideologies, ideas, and action plans, but we have to trust that the other party are just like us and have the same goals, they just chose a method that’s misguided. Our social contract isn’t just with the government. It’s with one another. If that trust breaks apart, we have nothing left.

And Trump is stoking that narrative, blatantly calling for “them” to be silenced, carried out in stretchers, removed, etc. Who is “them”? Anyone who protests his rallies or disagrees with him, however respectfully. It’s “the blacks,” the “Mexicans,” the “Muslims,” and most recently “our communist friend’s [Bernie Sanders]” supporters.” Sometimes protests just make the division worse. But Trump isn’t calling out the differences in our beliefs and ideologies, he’s insinuating there’s differences in what makes us human. Words have consequences.

This ” us versus them” mentality is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. I would hope that we can all disagree on policy, economics, even religion, and still have more that unites us than divides us. This mentality of social identity assures us that we are better than the “others.” And superiority breeds indifference which breeds suspicion and hate which eventually turns to violence and discrimination. Just ask the Bosnians, the German Jews, the Tutsis, or the Yezzidis, to name a few. While the “us versus them” belief doesn’t always lead to ethnic cleansing or genocide, every instance of ethnic cleansing and genocide begins there.

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Friends, don’t buy into the rhetoric that distances “us” from “them.” We are all one, American, and in this mess together. And Trump’s bombastic, violent rhetoric has energized some of the worst parts of ourselves,inciting violence, death threats, and mobs on the streets.

This disintegration of trust is dangerous to all of us. At this point, I’m not even concerned with who’s going to win the presidency any more (I still think Trump won’t win in the long run). I’m concerned with how our country is going to recover from this ugliness. Regardless of who wins the Republican nomination, regardless of who wins the general election, we will still be left with angry, hurting, resentful people willing to lash out at anyone that unintentionally stirs up their own fears and insecurities.

So what are we going to do? How are we going to mend this?

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My conservative friends: Please be troubled by what’s happening in the Republican party. Be a Christian (or Muslim or Jew or agnostic) first and a Republican, like, fifteenth. You don’t have to be liberal to be against Trump’s tone, fascism, or division. Please be willing to pray, to speak, and to act against this growing violence. Be willing to listen to another point of view before writing someone off as a “bleeding heart liberal” or “whiny black kid.”

My liberal friends: Remember that as disgusting as you find Trump’s tone and his supporters’ response, as protester you must behave better than them. Protest all you like but do it peacefully, respectfully, and constitutionally. Think of the nonviolent tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. And remember that most protests only cause Trump supporters to dig in their heels. Be for unity rather than just against Trump.

My Christian friends: Christ rescued us from our hate. He loved us before we first loved him. He loved us despite our unworthiness to be loved. Speak truth, but speak it in love.  God loves the Trump supporters that scream racial slurs and willingly embrace the neo-Nazi comparisons. And God loves the reckless youth that rip posters and disrupt rallies. We are to bandage the bleeding (and at this point we’re all bleeding because we’re all human) and hope for the despairing (and despair was definitely one of my emotions after Super Tuesday).

These sentiments that Trump has tapped into are larger than I first thought, and they will not–cannot–be ignored.

So what are we going to do about it?

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Categories: Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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