africa

Bill Mounce with East Mountain

IMG_8523-1.jpg

Two weekends ago, East Mountain had the privilege of hosting Bill Mounce, a world-renowned New Testament scholar, author, and Bible translator. Bill was a part of the ESV and NIV 2011 Bible translations. Bill spends most of his time these days running BiblicalTraining.org, a website dedicated to training and equipping Christians at all levels. East Mountain utilizes Biblical Training’s resources in our pastoral training programs. Biblical Training supplies the content, and East Mountain provides the facilitators, the community, and the support network. Read below to hear about our weekend with Bill.

BillMounce-Jack-Micah.jpg

Bill with Micah and me at the East Mountain braai


On Friday, Bill visited with a cohort of Stellenbosch theology students. The students had the opportunity to dialogue with Bill about their research and his ministry experiences. One PhD student asked Bill about the importance of Biblical Languages for preaching. Bill's response, after decades of pastoral ministry: "I don't know how you stand up there and say 'Thus says the LORD' without being absolutely sure what the text means. And I don't know how you know that without the languages."

IMG_1727.jpg

Theology students listening to Bill talk about the importance of Biblical Languages.

On Saturday, Bill lectured on Titus 2:11-16. We asked him to speak about the importance of theological studies for practical ministry. He chose to talk about the relationship of justification and sanctification, saying that so much of one’s ministry is dependent upon how one sees the relationship between justification and sanctification. Bill uses the imagery of Matthew’s gospel (7:12-13) in relation to these terms. Justification is the gate entered; sanctification is the path followed.

Here’s Titus 2:11-16 in the NIV and ESV

Titus2.png

After the morning lecture, we shared a relaxing lunch. One of the cornerstones of our ministry here at East Mountain is that we are intentional about spending time together and getting to know one another. We view sharing meals as an important activity which facilitates deep conversations and true community.

IMG_8523-1.jpg
Version-2-2.jpg

In the afternoon, we continued discussing the converging worlds of theological reflection and practical ministry with a panel discussion on how the church can and should address the country’s biggest needs. In addition to Bill, our panel consisted of Bryan and Gabe. Bryan is an influential church leader in Cape Town. Gabe is the lead visionary for East Mountain, overseeing strategic involvement and local partnerships.

IMG_1733.jpg

Bill, Bryan, and Gabe

The rich discussion impressed on me the importance of the work we are doing. There is a deep need for greater Biblical literacy, more theological training, and, especially, discipleship of church leaders. Paul sent out Titus and Timothy as apostolic delegates with his full authority to address the situations in Crete and Ephesus, to restore order to the churches, and set up healthy, Biblical processes for dealing with current and future issues. In the same way, God, through His Spirit and His church, is calling pastors to lead their congregations in a way that motivates believers to preach the gospel, to love their neighbors, and to work towards reconciliation and peace (2 Cor 5).

In post-apartheid South Africa, there is no shortage of need for what Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation. As I learned in our discussion, even reconciliation is a loaded term in South Africa. The chasms of inequality  and mistrust run so deep, only gospel-preaching paired with gospel-living can begin to bring healing.

Version-2-1.jpg

 

Would you join us praying for the Church to rise up in addressing the needs of South Africa?

Would you pray for God to be glorified through the advance of His Kingdom here and now?

Thank you for being a part of what God is doing in South Africa through East Mountain.

2015: Our Year In Pictures

IMG_8447-2-e1449690812913.jpg

On January 21, 2015, we hopped on a plane, skipped across an ocean, and jumped into a new life of faith, obedience, and adventure in the suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa.

Here's what our year looked like.

All of our 14 bags arrived safely; it was an unexpected blessing and great relief.

Jack handing out tablets to East Mountain Interns and Bible Certificate Course students.

As part of our educational strategy, East Mountain uses tablets preloaded with Bible resources, teaching material and coursework. A Houston friend sent us with 5 tablets, the exact number needed for the last minute registrants. God provides in unforeseen ways when we are obedient!

East Mountain's 2015 South African Resident Interns(Left to right: Lorenzo, Natasha, Lutando)

Dialogue Education Training: Learning How to Teach By Asking Questions

East Mountain Ministry Partners 

Micah Mae

God gave us our first child, Micah Mae, on March 24! His protection and His goodness were evident throughout the entire process. 

Studying in the early days

East Mountain Fellowship

The East Mountain community and our church small group provided much-needed support and encouragement in the first couple of weeks.

Jack's parents came for a visit in April. Loren's mom came down in June.

Jack using his tech skills (i.e. Google & YouTube) in upgrading the EM Team House internet.

SUMMIT

Summit is East Mountain's  summer internship which runs mid-May through June. Summit is a combo of leadership training, mentorship, Bible teaching, and practical ministry.

The 2015 Summit Crew.

Alex and Maggie are some dear friends. Their daughter, Emma Kate, was also born in Stellenbosch, about 6 weeks after Micah.

Some rest time after Summit at the beach. 

Studying in the department with Christian and Alex

Studying at home... sort of

The local coffee shop where I do most of my studying. By God's grace, I passed my first year of coursework cum laude.

Some of the best pics of our recent family photo shoot. (Thanks Kelsey and Autumn!)

We are so thankful for the memories these pictures represent. Each one represents tangible evidence of God's grace and his faithfulness in our lives.

Thank you for joining us in this journey!

Much Love,

Jack, Loren & Micah Mae

Read our 2015 Annual Update Letter

Read our 2015 Highlights

Support our Ministry

2015: Our Highlights

We've had a busy year. Here are some of our highlights.

What We Accomplished in 2015

- began our family!
- established solid relationships within the EM team
- completed the first year of coursework
- installed a new wireless system in EM team house
- set up EM social media strategy
- built friendships with several non-Christians
- built and fostered relationships with EM interns
- assisted with website upgrades for EM community
- met general tech support needs for EM community
- plugged in at Christ Church
- adapted to being a new mom
- conquered colic, but only just barely
- adapted to life w/o dairy

What We Plan to Finish in 2015

- Strategic Planning for East Mountian 2016
- One last capstone paper
- Family time in Texas
- Watch Star Wars Episode 7 ... multiple times
- Indulge in lots of Tex-Mex (Torchy's, Gringo's, and Lupe, we're coming for you!)

What We Hope to Accomplish in 2016

- Complete Masters in Biblical Languages and Linguistics
- Strategic planning for East Mountian Global
- Teaching Bible courses for EM
- Summit 2016 planning & recruiting

By His Grace & For His Glory!

Will You Join Us?!

We would love for you to be a part of what we are doing. Here are a few ways you can join us:
1) Thank God for what He has done this year, both in us and through us.
2) Pray for what God has in store for us next year, for direction, wisdom, guidance, and support
3) Prayerfully consider giving for any of the needs listed here.

Culture Shock in South Africa

Sometimes late at night, I lay awake and stare at the ceiling. I ponder the deep questions of life and I think about …

tacos. Yep, tacos. (Specifically, a Torchy’s chicken taco, extra mango, with chipotle sour cream sauce.)

taco.jpg

As a native Texan living far from home, I (Loren) am beginning to think  “a land flowing with milk and honey” could be contextually translated as “a land flowing with salsa and [good] coffee, a land of large parking spaces and Targets and tacos to go.” (I’m sure my husband, the Bible scholar, would agree in spirit but disagree in principle.)

We, dear friends, are right in the middle of culture shock.

culture-shock.jpg

The good news: It’s just a phase, and we know it will pass.

The bad news: We are missing home more than ever.

Would you pray for us?

Here is what Jack has to say about it:

What I thought ministry would like: teaching, preaching, lecturing.

What it usually looks like:

  • Tech-ing: fixing computers, setting up wifi, teaching computer skills, solving phone problems
  • Friend-ing: building relationships with baristas and grocers in our neighborhood
  • Supporting: Sharing my Bible knowledge to support the work of East Mountain as we disciple young people and encourage those preaching in the slums

Instead of giving lots of sermons, I've been blessed by  hearing lots of great sermons.

Instead of being a Hebrew Jedi master, I'm learning to write more precisely and study hard.

Instead of leading out front, I'm supporting the work, strategizing from the back, plugging in holes.

God is teaching me that sometimes ministry looks like  showing up and loving people. Sometimes the most important people to love are the ones you see everyday.

Our presence —  the time we take to cultivate friendships with those who don’t know Jesus — it is powerful in a way that shakes spiritual kingdoms.

But it often doesn’t feel important like giving a sermon does.

I (Loren) am learning the power of being present for the mundane yet sacred moments of motherhood, as I change yet another diaper.

I’m learning how this tiny human opens doors and builds relationships with the local people in unexpected ways.

As we are reminded of these truths, we find ourselves humbled and encouraged. All we must do to be part of God's kingdom work is to be present and available for his Spirit to use us.

Wherever you are today, we pray you find the courage to be present and attentive to God's Spirit ... and possibly stop for a taco on the way home.

We miss you and love you, friends.

Prayer requests:

  • Praise God with us! Micah’s colic has passed and her sweet, spunky personality is emerging. We discovered she is allergic to dairy, and if Loren stays on a strict dairy-free diet, Micah sleeps longer and is much calmer. Please pray that Loren would have patience and perseverance as she learns to cook and eat in a new way.
  • For the friendships that we are building with non-believers here; that God would give us the opportunity and the courage to speak about him.
  • For Jack’s studies: that he would continue to be encouraged as he studies the word of God, and for more opportunities to share his knowledge and bless others.
  • For our support. We still lack 25% amount in monthly support, and $6000 for the cost of our car. You can give online here.
IMG_0955-449x304.jpg

Discipleship in the Mud Pit

Rain slashes against the windows. It’s winter in Stellenbosch - another cold and grizzly day. The mountains are hidden in a heavy fog. I have never experienced a June quite like this one. Inside, a fire crackles in the large fireplace. I can feel the apprehension in the room; it is palpable among the group of young women gathered in a circle.

wpid-rain-on-window-2015-07-8-18-31.jpg

I go first and I share my story - the story of how the Lord found me and rescued me from myself.

It’s never easy, but I have shared my testimony enough to know that there is power in it. There is power in each of our stories - power in the unique way God reveals himself to each of us, power in His redemption.

As each young woman shares her story, fingers tremble and hearts race. Tears fall; sheepish smiles follow. These women barely know each other, and yet they will be living and learning together for the next six weeks.

It is East Mountain’s Summit internship program. Eleven young people in their late teens and early twenties, some South African and some American, have come to East Mountain’s retreat center in Stellenbosch to see what the Lord has to teach them.

As I listen to these women and pray for them, I start to feel alive. A part of me, dormant for these last months as I’ve struggled through postpartum days and long nights, begins to stir. I remember that I am more than simply a pair of hands to feed and clothe and rock. As I gaze down into the blue eyes of my baby, I hear the young woman across from me stumble over the words - that she was unwanted, that she can’t remember her mother, that she was made to feel unloved.

My heart aches and I wish there were a way for her to go back. I wish someone had been there to cup her chin and tilt her small face upwards and to tell her that the Lord doesn’t make mistakes; her life is no accident. As it is, she now hears this truth for the first time at age nineteen. The Lord has healing for her in this place, and he’s only just begun his redemption of her life.

wpid-childandmother-2015-07-8-18-31.jpg

I feel bold and confident. I can speak truth into these women’s lives. I can listen and ask thoughtful questions. I can help them process what the Lord is doing within them.

Fast forward two weeks, and I pull up to the retreat center on another rainy day. I hunch over the steering wheel, sobs racking my body. In the back, baby Micah wails - on and on, as she has all morning. It’s just too much and I feel I have nothing to give. I laugh at myself - at how I thought I could be a mentor to a young woman. These days, my life feels like wading through a mud pit - mucking through endless care-taking and sneaky postpartum hormones and trying to learn how to be a mother.

wpid-micahmae-2015-07-8-18-31.jpeg

And yet, here I am. Waiting to pick up the young woman I am supposed to be “discipling.” She dances out to the car and suddenly realizes that my mood is grim. She knows my baby has colic. She’s heard me articulate that these days are hard, that I haven’t found my rhythm as a mom yet. I have been honest, and yet raw tears are something else altogether.

But, the Lord knows what I need in that moment and I find it in Erika’s gentle hug, in her assurance that things will be okay. And I am reminded that discipleship is not about confidence and having the right answers - many times, discipleship is raw life, laid bare for another to see.

Discipleship is not only the stories the Lord has already redeemed in our lives, but those he is actively transforming, day to day.

And so I open myself up, and we have a lovely brunch together, and I find myself excited by all the Lord is doing in her heart. She cuddles my baby and offers sympathy and reflects back to me what I look like - something I’ve sorely needed.

wpid-FullSizeRender1-2015-07-8-18-31.jpg
wpid-FullSizeRender1-2015-07-8-18-31.jpg

Just as this young woman learns best in community, so do I.

On the good days and on the hard days, we find ourselves increasingly thankful for East Mountain - for how this group of missionary families and South Africans have joined hands and formed real community - and invited us in. They have been our surrogate family, and encouraged us to exercise our gifts, and given us a forum to see God at work. As God continues to mould Jack and me into who he's called us to be, I’m thankful that East Mountain is a part of it.

As you muck through your day-to-day, may the Lord bless you with community. May he give you the courage to seek it out and the determination not to settle for anything less. May you find that whatever your station in life, there are those you are equipped to encourage and those ready to encourage you.

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity — all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.”

—Acts 2:42-47

Recent News (Meet Our Baby!)

micah_messara_part_2-45.jpg

Nervously, I made my way through the dark alleyway between two bustling streets in Cape Town. I passed a booth advertising “Pasport Piktures” on a crooked cardboard sign. Numerous beggars milled around, holding out their hands as I passed.

wpid-Home-Affairs-queue-2015-05-22-14-41-449x304.jpg

I found the line I wanted, clutching my diaper bag and the heavy carseat, where my tiny baby was sleeping.

The line for the government’s Home Affairs office wound out the door, down the dirty staircase, and into the alleyway. All I wanted was a birth certificate for my baby. I had not expected this - coming face to face with poverty. As I waited, I noticed a woman and her children huddled in a corner. Her toddler slept fitfully on the thin cotton blanket she had spread under him. She fed her small baby cereal with a cracked wooden spoon. I peeked at my own sleeping baby, her full tummy gently rising and falling, the cotton bow I had so carefully placed on her forehead slipping down over her eyes. As I turned away from the woman, tears filled my eyes and slipped down my cheeks. I couldn’t help but think of the agony she must face, trying to care for her children in this place. I felt the pain of it all in a way I wouldn’t have just weeks earlier, before I had my baby.

They say that becoming a parent changes everything - and truer words were never spoken.

wpid-blog1045-2015-05-22-14-41.jpg

As I waited, I grappled with the same questions that plague me daily here — How can we, living in South Africa, best care for others? How do we help without continuing a cycle of dependency?

How do we provide hope in dark alleys like this one?

The only answer that satisfies is this:  the gospel. “…say to them, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” (Luke 10:9) If I’m honest, sometimes it doesn’t seem like enough. Sometimes I want the gospel, the kingdom, to be more than it is.

I think it’s only because I don’t understand the fullness of it. We toss around these phrases - “the gospel,” “the kingdom” - as if is such a light thing. As if it isn’t for the hopeless … and hope for those of us who face despair only on Mondays. As if it isn’t light coming into dark alleys, and warmth, and a full belly for all. Strength for today, hope for tomorrow.

What plagues me is that to bring the good news, to advance the Kingdom of God, requires courage.

Done correctly, and fully, it turns lives and hierarchies upside-down. Hope for life eternal AND food to fill bellies today.

And yet, I often forfeit opportunities in front of me - because proclaiming the gospel is scary. Bringing the Kingdom of God is scary - it requires doing uncomfortable things and it requires sacrifice.

In silent agony, I debated if I should give the woman the small bills tucked inside my jeans pocket. I debated it so intensely, before I knew it, it was my turn to go inside. Cheeks burning, I walked past her. As I did, I felt another opportunity slip by and felt deep shame at my indecision, my fear.

Jack and I have been wrestling with what it looks like for us, in this place, to bring live the gospel, to bring the Kingdom. And the Lord has been answering, in his own slow, unexpected way - giving us abundant opportunities to participate in training leaders in local churches. Putting the homeless right in front of us and letting us struggle through how to respond to them. Showing us the multiplying effects of teaching correct theology.

We find ourselves awed and humbled by our opportunities here, and how he has used each of you to make this possible. Thank you for being the hands that sent us.

As the Body of Christ, we are making a difference for the kingdom in South Africa. May we share with you how?

In Our Family

On March 24, our daughter, Micah Mae, was born. We praise God for a healthy, natural delivery here in Stellenbosch. Loren’s labor was intense but taught us to pray and worship in a new way. Thank you for your prayers!

wpid-micah_messara_part_1221-2015-05-22-14-41.jpg

To our surprise, just having Micah here has been a testimony to others. Almost everyone we meet can immediately tell we are Americans by our accents. They are intensely curious why we came here, away from our family and home, at such a crucial time in the life of our growing family. With questions like that, opportunities to share the gospel are plenty.

For ten weeks now, we have been in that alternate reality that inevitably accompanies bringing home a newborn. Micah has colic, which means that she is healthy but cries uncontrollably for hours and does not yet sleep well. Her pediatrician has assured us that with time, she will calm down. In the mean time, we are taking one day at a time and finding many reasons to pray for strength and patience.

In Our Ministry with East Mountain

We continue to become more involved with the ministry and community life of East Mountain. We love being part of their team!

  • Jack is handling technology for EM’s ministry activities. The knowledge he gained during his former jobs in tech support now meets a vital need here. We work with pastors from many different towns throughout the country. After the pastors visit the EM retreat center to participate in training courses, we don’t want to send them back to their communities empty-handed. We are working to provide them with tablets loaded full of Bible study materials so that when they return home, they have what they need to produce quality sermons and continue their study of the Bible.
  • Loren is mentoring a small group of young women (some American, some South African) who are participating in EM’s six week internship program. She is also developing curriculum for the children's ministry here, doing some writing for the website, and building relationships with new friends.
  • Jack is currently writing curriculum for the New & Old Testament pastoral training classes.

In Jack’s Studies

Jack’s postgraduate studies are going well, though he is finding time to study harder to come by with a baby in the house! He is finishing up his current courses in Hebrew Narrative Translation and General Linguistics. Soon he will be moving on to study Hebrew poetry and Textual Criticism (the scholarly practice of comparing ancient manuscripts). He has recently selected his topic for extended research is very excited about it! He will be investigating Hebrew words often translated “Now” and “Therefore” - words important for  understanding the logic of a passage.

The Theology Library on campus, one of Jack’s favorite study spots.

The Theology Library on campus, one of Jack’s favorite study spots.

Funding News

  • We are still in need of $500 of monthly support, and we are trusting God to provide for the remainder of our needs. To support our work, click here.
  • It has become clear that in order to continue our work with East Mountain, we will need a car. Many of our ministry responsibilities take place outside Stellenbosch, in the local townships or at the team retreat center. Would you consider giving to help us continue our ministry by purchasing a car? Our budget for this is $12,000.

Prayer Requests

  • Please pray with us that the Lord gives us energy as we continue to serve and study despite getting little no sleep.
  • Please pray that the Lord provides for the remainder of our financial needs.
  • Please pray that God gives us wisdom in how to soothe our fussy baby and best care for her. Pray that we are given patience & perspective, and that she soon is able to calm down.
  • Please pray that Jack is able to find the time and energy to devote to his studies, and that we both learn to balance our many opportunities here.

We thank God for each of you! Your support & encouragement means so much to us.

These days we are hard-pressed to find the time (or both hands free) to compose blog posts. If you are on Facebook or Instagram, please look us up so we can stay in touch more frequently!

Answered Prayers

IMG_0050.jpg

Beloved Friends,

We miss you all! We want to share with you some of the amazing and specific ways God has answered our prayers since we arrived in South Africa just two short months ago. We cannot thank you enough for interceeding for us! 

We were concerned about our visas, so together we prayed. The application was extremely tedious; the information we received from the embassy was not helpful. Despite numerous complications & set-backs, our visas arrived a full 2 days before our plane took off!

Houston to Dubai; Dubai to Cape Town.

Houston to Dubai; Dubai to Cape Town.

Together, we prayed for safe travels. We had relatively relaxing flights and were even able to sleep some. At the Houston airport, God provided an incredibly kind airline employee who intentionally didn't charge us the full amount she could have for our bags. She also convinced her manager to let Loren travel, though she was far along in pregnancy. Then, we were shocked to find every one of our 14 bags waiting for us when we landed!

Our Luggage in the Cape Town airport

Our Luggage in the Cape Town airport

Together, we prayed for community and a strategic ministry to serve - one of our earliest prayer requests, many of you have been praying with us for this for over a year. God has answered that prayer in East Mountian. It is truly a community, and a team where our skills & passions are needed. They have loved us well and served us since the day we arrived. In addition to our EM ministry team, we have found a church, a small group, and already have a few budding friendships.

East Mountain Old Testament Course

East Mountain Old Testament Course

Together, we prayed that God would give us a place to live by the time the baby arrived. We expected the process of finding a place to live to be long & frustrating; there is a housing shortage here. But, by the end of our second day visiting apartments in Stellenbosch, we found a place that was affordable, spacious, and in a great location. They even sell Dr. Pepper next door! We were able to move in a week later, and it is already starting to feel like home. In fact, our landlord works in Jack's department at the university.

Lorenzo, Natasha, & Luthando.  East Mountain Interns for 2015 and some of our new friends

Lorenzo, Natasha, & Luthando.

East Mountain Interns for 2015 and some of our new friends

Together, we prayed for God's provision. Through the generous gifts of many of you and a favorable exchange rate, we are about 75% funded. Through the body of Christ, each of our needs has been met as they have arisen.  Thank you for being a part!

Together, we prayed for a good doctor.  The Lord provided a doctor to deliver our baby that we feel we can trust, and Loren has already received excellent medical care from her. In addition, God has provided a supportive and knowledgeable doula who will come to our apartment when labor begins, remain with us through the entire birth, advocate for us in the hospital, translate for us if needed, and help us understand any differences in the health care system. As Loren's due date nears, we feel calm and confident.

Visiting the Penguins at Boulder Beach

Visiting the Penguins at Boulder Beach

Thank you for your prayers! It has been astounding to watch God answer prayer after prayer!! What a sweet season. We place our hope and our trust and our faith in God our Father. We want to point people to Jesus in everything we do.

As we continue to pray, we invite you to pray specifically for a few big things ...

Lord willing, Baby Messarra will be joining us any day! We are both excited and nervous.

The baby is measuring small in every way, and this concerns the doctor. Would you join us in praying for our baby girl?

Please pray for:

- a healthy baby and a healthy momma

- wisdom and discernment on the many decisions to be made during labor and following delivery

- for our parents, who wish they could be here with us to welcome their granddaughter

- for God to be glorified in the birth of our daughter

We are also encountering two difficulties here: the lack of internet and a car. We are finding life challenging without them, especially because it makes it hard to connect with people - both new friends here and all of you back home. Having these tools would also open many more doors for the kind of ministry projects we can do. Would you pray that despite slow systems here, God would show us favor and provide speedily for these needs?

Thank you for joining us on this journey and sustaining us with your love and prayers. God is doing powerful things here in South Africa!

We are grateful for you! We love you! We miss you!

Joy in the Slums

One Sunday morning we found ourselves sitting in plastic lawn chairs inside a one-room church in Mitchell’s Plain, one of the largest slums nearby.

The city we live in, Stellenbosch, pulses with the energy of a college town, an eclectic mix of care-free, party-seeking students and dignified professors. It’s set against the backdrop of stunning mountain views, surrounded by vineyards, and filled with oak-lined streets that boast beautiful European architecture.

wpid-stellenbosch-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg
wpid-stellenbosch2-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

But drive a short distance in any direction, and you remember that you are, indeed, in Africa. Flat plains stretch out, dotted with scrubby bushes. Suddenly, the townships pop into view - poor neighborhoods where the vast majority of the population lives.

wpid-township2-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg
wpid-township-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

Ramshackle buildings with flat roofs, built haphazardly, lean against each other for support. Narrow roads crowd with children running, men shooting the breeze, women hanging laundry. Above, a tangled mess of electrical wires and smoke clouds the horizon.

The contrast is so stark, it’s unsettling. Like many things in South Africa, what you see is not necessarily what you get. One of the reasons we love working with East Mountain is that they have ministry partnerships with a multitude of different communities - white, black, coloured (the proper term for an ethnic group here), wealthy, poor, Anglican, Baptist … we have been so thankful that the Lord has placed us on a team of strategic missionaries that have the same vision we do for a unified church. Being part of their work allows us to be involved in many layers of South African society, not only those we would encounter in our own quiet neighborhood.

And so it was that I found myself, the object of curious stares (as if my pale skin & red hair weren’t enough, my watermelon-sized belly really does the trick), opening my Bible along with the tiny (mostly coloured) congregation. What followed was a quiet, passionate sermon on the suffering of God’s people - one of the most encouraging and challenging I’ve heard in a long time.

“As a Christian, if you are not suffering now … well, don’t be surprised when it comes.” He reminded us that the road to following Jesus is not easy, nor should we expect it to be. What struck me was the joyful, confident tone of his voice, even as he spoke of suffering. I saw many heads nodding in agreement.

My heart ached as he made the sermon personal. He acknowledged that he knew people in that room who weren’t sure where the next meal was coming from.

He softly acknowledged the congregation’s grief over the recent death of a young man in their youth group, lost in a drive-by shooting. Mitchell’s Plain is one of the most violent, gang-ridden neighborhoods in the world. I knew this, but such a reality was hard to imagine in this church. It struck me that I was sitting among Christians … that really knew what it was to follow Jesus along the road of suffering.

wpid-IMG_0048-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

They didn’t choose Christianity because the culture told them it was right, or just for the sake of their kids, or because of an uneasy feeling that it’s better not to offend an unknown God. Theirs was a genuine faith, tested intensely and tested often. They knew Jesus on a deep level I don’t as a child of privilege, born into a middle-class American family. As the pastor touched on Hebrews 11 and the great Christians of old who suffered joyfully for Christ, I realized I was sitting among modern-day heroes of my faith, unknown and unsung except by Jesus himself.

And I thought of everything the Lord has provided for us in recent months — the outpouring of love and financial support, prayers and encouragement from all of you.

wpid-IMG_0245-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

I thought of how smooth our transition here has been; we have been welcomed by the East Mountain community, by professors and students in Jack’s study program, even by the friendly people of Mitchell’s Plain.

The Lord has been very kind to us in recent months.

Yes, it was difficult to quit steady jobs that we both loved, say goodbye to family and friends, and fly into the unknown - especially with a baby on the way.

But oh, how the Lord has been kind to us. Our transition has been so much easier than I was prepared for.

  • Within weeks, God provided a lovely, affordable apartment in a peaceful part of town.
  • Through all of you, God provided the finances for essentials like a bed, a fridge, and a stove. I felt I was living in the lap of luxury the first time I used our washing machine - not something I expected to find at an affordable price here. As I unpacked baby clothes and supplies, I thought of each beloved friend and family member that purchased them for us - this made it all the sweeter.
  • Within weeks, God provided a doctor I feel I can trust, and a doula to help me through labor. He has provided a robustly healthy pregnancy, and within weeks, God willing, there will be a third Messarra adventuring with us around South Africa.
wpid-IMG_0300-2015-03-7-11-52.jpg

The Lord has been kind to us - especially through all of you. Thank you, a thousand times over.

Pastor Andrew concluded, “The Lord loves us, when things go well for us and when we are not sure how to make it through the day; let us not doubt his love and goodness. Even as he allows us to suffer, he invites us to know him - a joy that no suffering can touch.”

While I know there will be suffering, I also realize that the pastor was right - knowing Jesus, really knowing Jesus, is the sweetest part of this life. Following him as he takes us through journey after journey, be it a journey through a tough job, financial strain, grief, joy, blessing, parenthood, marriage, singleness … Jesus remains with us and makes life worth the living. May we never be distracted from this truth.

My prayer for each of you is that you come to know Jesus as deeply as Christians in Mitchell’s Plain - for such an joy cannot be snatched away.

Would you continue to pray with us?

  • For a positive labor experience and a healthy baby - she is due March 23!
  • For the provision of a car and internet at our apartment.
  • For Jack as he re-develops study habits - it’s been a long time, and having a newborn will only add to the challenge! He is loving translating Deuteronomy & Judges with like-minded nerds.
  • For our continued funding - we are 75% funded! Thank you to everyone that has given!
  • For friends here - it can be a little lonely moving to a new place. Would you pray that God provides us with solid community and rich friendships?

The Journey to Stellenbosch

wpid-Stellenboschweek1043-2015-02-3-20-19.jpg

Goeie dag (literally “good day,”/“hello” in Africaans) from Stellenbosch, South Africa!

Life has been moving at lightning speed for us the couple of weeks! The Lord has been faithful to us in ways both large and small, and we are excited some of that with you. Thank you to all of you that have prayed for us, supported us financially, encouraged us, and followed our journey - you will be amazed to hear how God is already at work here in beautiful South Africa.

Transitioning to missionary life overseas is not unlike the experience of a roller coaster: there is a lot anticipation and dramatic build-up, but even hearing the “clack-clack” of the wheels as the car moves higher, you’re never quite sure what it will be like when you finally tip over the crest and go careening down.

Much like a roller coaster, we have found most of the ride so far to be exhilarating, amazing, and yes, a bit overwhelming.

wpid-Stellenboschweek1045-2015-02-3-20-19.jpg

Our journey began with a layover in Dubai. It was full of exciting sights … and a sobering discovery. In the midst of incredible infrastructure and brazen opulence, it became clear to us that the empire of Dubai has been built on the backs of migrant workers who are essentially slave labor. We had heard of this in the news, and while we had hoped to see the Burj Khalifa or the Palm Islands, it did not occur to us that we might run into this ugly reality first-hand.

Our waiter from Nepal, followed by our Pakistani cab driver, had been well-trained to answer questions about Dubai and show off the country to its best advantage. They were not, however, prepared for our gentle questions about their homeland, their families, and what brought them to Dubai. Sadness and anger tumbled out of their mouths as we listened and mourned with them. It grieved us to hear of families left behind, deplorable working conditions for unfair pay, and little hope of change.

I was reminded of the great pyramids: they testify to the vision and leadership of great pharaohs … but if those stones could speak, they would also tell of other lives, less lauded - the lives of the slaves who built those towering structures, brick by brick. Most of the second flight, I restlessly turned and thought of our friends in Dubai. While their chances of justice in this life are slim, I pray that they would find hope everlasting in Jesus.

I am thankful that we serve a God who sees all, who promises release for the captives, and who invites us, wealthy and poor, free and oppressed alike:

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost … come to me … listen, that you may live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, according my faithful love promised to David.” (Isaiah 55)

After relatively smooth flights, the miracles continued when we landed in Capetown and were astonished to find that all of our bags made it! Our East Mountain team was incredibly kind to pick us up from the airport, and in short order we were set up in East Mountain’s large and comfortable guest house and retreat center. We have enjoyed getting to know our team - they have been so supportive and helpful to us.

In another answer to prayer, we have found a place to live long-term! While we had settled in for a long wait, the Lord has swiftly provided a place to live and the basic items we will need to move in. We are in a little two-bedroom apartment in a quiet neighborhood, within walking distance of the Stellenbosch University campus. As a mama entering the “nesting” phase, it has been an unexpected blessing to know that we will be settled plenty of time before the baby arrives. Stay tuned for pictures of our new place!

While there is more to tell, we want to extend a huge thank you to each of you that has supported us - we felt such an outpouring of love, especially in the days shortly before leaving and since we’ve arrived. Many of you have given us going away gifts, supported us financially, sent us encouraging words, and prayed for us. In the whirlwind of moving, we haven’t been able to reach out individually to each one of you, but please receive our deep gratitude. We would not be on this incredible journey without you, our faithful community.

Through many recent details, the Lord has made it clear that we are where he wants us to be - we already see so many opportunities to grow the Body of Christ in South Africa. Together, I know we are going to see God work powerfully in his church. Thank you for your generous hearts and for joining us. You are dear to us!

May you find time this week to dwell on the promises of Isaiah 55; whatever challenges you face today, his peace and abundance are yours in Christ!

South Africa: T Minus 3 days!

January usually feels like a slow month - Christmas is over and I'm typically in "recovery mode," falling back into a rhythm and contemplating a new year, all in the midst of cold, gray winter. This January has been quite the exception! We have said good-bye to our jobs and co-workers, dealt with visas, moved out of our house, packed our bags, and prepared to start a new life overseas. We are now soaking up every last minute with family and friends as we make final preparations to move.

It's hard to believe, but in three days, we will be on our way to South Africa!

wpid-planetoSA-2015-01-18-10-46.jpg

It’s 15 hours from Houston to Dubai, where we will layover for a night, and then on the next 10-hour plane to Cape Town, South Africa, followed by an hour drive to Stellenbosch.

Study update: Jack begins new student orientation the day we land. He is excited to dive back into the world of Linguistics, Greek and Hebrew. As his wife, seeing his passion and excitement for studying and sharing the word of God continues to confirm for me that God is leading us forward to pursue our calling.

wpid-studying-2015-01-18-10-46.jpg

Would you pray with us, that as Jack studies the word of God, the Lord would give him opportunities to share his findings with the church?

Housing update: We will initially be living with some very kind missionaries from our East Mountain team and will begin hunting for a place of our own to live, something that we've been told can take time and patience in a university town with a housing shortage.

Would you pray with us, that God would deliver us an affordable rental home in a safe area that meets our needs?

Baby update: In late March, God willing, we will welcome our little girl! We are thankful that both Loren and baby are healthy. Much of Loren's time in the first few weeks will be establishing care under a doctor and securing plans to deliver the baby.

wpid-10872883_729825297916_8487312528740355077_o-2015-01-18-10-46.jpg

Would you pray with us, for health for mom and baby, and that God will provide us with a skilled doctor, doula, and supportive community as we welcome our first child?

Ministry update: We are excited to finally in person join the East Mountain ministry team (check us out, we are now "official" on their team page!). We are honored to join them as we work together to equip and expand the church in South Africa.

Would you pray with us, that as we undergo a lot of transition, we are able to establish a healthy and positive community with our East Mountain team?

Funding update: Thank you to everyone who has given to support our ministry in South Africa! Currently, we are 60% funded. We are thankful to be reminded that God provides for us, enough for each day and need. You can find more information on our budget page.

Would you pray with us, that God continues to meet our financial needs as he teaches us to rely on him and our community of faith?

Thank you!!

We’ve been amazed (yet again) at how our God is a God of abundance - we have seen his care through all of you. We are overwhelmed by the generosity of our community here - between baby showers, practical help preparing, words of love, financial gifts to our ministry, and an outpouring of love and support, we are very aware that we will not journey into South Africa alone. We are deeply humbled by all of the support and love.

Thank you for being part of our journey, and thank you for your love.

Together, I know God is going to use us to encourage our brothers and sisters in South Africa, and to advance his kingdom work! Lately, I’ve been contemplating a beautiful quote from The Valley of Vision. Wherever you find yourself this January - stuck in the cold and gray, aware of his abundance, or somewhere between, may it encourage you:

“Every new duty calls for more grace than I now possess, but not more than is found in thee, the divine treasury in whom all fullness dwells.”

Why South Africa?

Living in America, it often feels like Christianity is in its decline. In 1910, 93% of all Christians in the world lived in Europe or the Americas. Today, that number is 63%.For our society, the significance and beauty of the gospel has faded in an age of material wealth and busy schedules.

In reality, the gospel is not dying out or fading - it’s just that its center has shifted dramatically.

Screen-Shot-2014-10-20-at-4.15.13-PM.png

Today, 1 in 4 Christians live in sub-Saharan Africa. In the last century, Christianity has spread more rapidly there than any other region of the world - it has seen a 60-fold increase in the number of believers! Many people ask us: Why South Africa?

Our answer: the gospel is spreading like wildfire in South Africa. That creates a huge need for Biblical education, pastoral training, and church support.

Why-SA-post-041.jpg

Today, you and I have more than 516 million brothers and sisters in sub-Saharan Africa, hungry to know God, eager to understand His word.

Our brothers and sisters need us. As people come to faith by the thousands, theological education and Bible study opportunities remain scarce.

In Tanzania, we met pastors who came to Christ, and less than a year later, had dozens gathering in their home, looking to them for spiritual leadership and teaching. Untrained, unsure of themselves, they pray God will help them; they shared of nights lying awake, wishing God would send someone to support and teach them.

Why-SA-post-035.jpg

In Rwanda, we saw the shadows left by the light of this revival. We met a “pastor” who had an obsession with building his personal wealth - the gospel he preached was not the truth, and he preyed on his congregation’s generosity. The people in his church didn’t know better -- no one ever gave them a theological foundation or taught them to read the Bible. Desperate physical needs abounded in his congregation, unmet, while the pastor’s house grew larger, his clothes ever more extravagant.

In Uganda, we asked our host pastor: “What is your church’s biggest need?” His answer: “Bible teaching! A class so that anyone could learn to read the Bible for themselves. We need more leaders; my congregation is hungry to learn! You have theological degrees from an American university ... could you teach them?”

You can imagine our delighted response. Jack had more fun that month than perhaps any other on our year-long journey.

Why-SA-post-039.jpg
Why-SA-post-038.jpg

I loved teaching community health classes, weaving together Scripture and topics in family wellness, working to empower African women. The month passed too quickly, and we still find that our hearts yearn for those days.

Why-SA-post-036.jpg

Why South Africa? Where there is a need, God provides. The faithful in Africa have been praying that God would send them teachers. And to our surprise, sometimes the Spirit whispers that WE are how God will answer their prayers.

We have heard the call of the Lord yet again: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

We know our answer - but we can’t do it alone.

Would you consider answering the call with us? We are 30% funded, and praying that God would provide more partners to join us in this exciting ministry.

We are passionate about equipping our brothers and sisters for the work of ministry. We know God has wonderful things planned for His church in South Africa. Would you join us?

Worlds Collide at Christmastide

wpid-IMG_0012-2013-12-18-14-281.jpg

Yesterday I watched as worlds collided.

A wealthy group of Americans delivered Christmas gifts to an African family who just arrived to our land of plenty.

Adopt-a-Family is a program facilitated through my refugee resettlement workplace. Refugee families who are experiencing their first Christmas in the U.S. are “adopted” by sponsors, who purchase items from a wish list assembled with the help of their case manager. Typical refugee wish lists include everything from microwaves and socks to bicycles and barbie dolls.

One of the most exclusive schools in Houston adopted many families this year; each classroom purchased an impressive collection  and it lifted my heart to see their hallway filled with gifts for needy families.

wpid-IMG_0012-2013-12-18-14-28.jpg

I accompanied a few fifth grade students and their parents as we excitedly loaded two SUVs full of packages and drove to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston to deliver our bounty.

I tried to explain what a refugee is while a very stressed-out mom threatened to pull over the Mercedes if the children didn’t stop fighting over who was eating more European chocolate in the back seat. Just as I felt how keenly their childhood was from my own, we began to compare knee scars and discuss Katy Perry (we agreed her older songs are way better).

When we arrived, we were greeted in true African fashion: with hugs all around, mango juice thrust into our hands, and lots of “God Bless You!”s and “Karibu Sana!” (you are very welcome here). This American girl felt very confused as a pang of homesickness for East Africa washed over me.

I was so proud of my Congolese friends, who have been through so much. They’ve endured threats on their lives because they were born into the wrong tribe. They’ve fled from machetes under the cover of night. And here they were, spreading joy to the privileged and proclaiming the kingdom of God. “By the hand of the God who is good, we escaped!” they exclaimed joyfully to the agnostic anesthesiologist and the stressed-out, stay-at-home mom.

Wide-eyed, the children listened as the proud African mother listed her eight living children, and two dead long ago. “God has surely blessed you,” I replied.

wpid-IMG_0061-2013-12-18-14-28.jpg

We sat in her bare living room and Zaheri's* face lit up as she told her fellow mamas how thankful she is to be here in America, “where no one will stop you from working to feed your children.” Her four-year-old son bounced excitedly as he tore open brightly-colored gift after gift, his brown eyes growing larger by the minute.

wpid-IMG_0041-2013-12-18-14-28.jpg

We spoke of our families, and we realized that while our stories may be different, we have common threads among us all: love for our children, hope for the future, the joy of family gathered at Christmas.

And as I sat, facilitating the conversation with my very poor KiSwahili, my heart filled and the Holy Spirit whispered: “I am Lord of them All.”

And I was thankful. Thankful as I remembered that God is even now at work, drawing each of us to himself.

None of us are left alone - not those frightened in the dark forests of the Congo. Not those in the wealthy desert of upscale American neighborhoods. Not even me, when my to do list buries my intentions to celebrate each day of Advent thoughtfully.

The Lord of them All send his Son .... his perfect, fully human son, born of the most humble circumstances.

When he drew his first cry somewhere in Bethlehem, it all changed for us. And when he drew his last breath on a humble cross, he saved us all.

He changed it for us all, and he made our particular darkness light -- For the African mother. For the stay-at-home mom. For the fifth grader with the skinned knee. For me. For you. And for all you love.

It is, indeed, a Merry Christmas.

*Zaheri was excited to have her photograph taken, but her name has been changed, and some faces have been blurred to protect these women and children.

Sanga's Story

map_of_democratic-republic-of-congo.jpg

Every day, I have the privilege of working with refugees. After years of applying; waiting; hoping; they arrive to the U.S., full of hope and yet hiding a history of heartbreak behind their wide smiles. Often, I can only guess at the traumas they've endured and the things they've escaped. One thing I do know: the word refugee is synonymous with survivor. All of them have left behind loved ones, the ones that weren't so lucky or weren't so strong.

Sometimes, I get the honor of actually hearing a refugee's story from start to finish; it never fails to leave me in awe. I got such an opportunity recently. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, an organization that helps refugees resettle, had their annual conference recently. One of the refugees I work with was honored to be selected to share his life story in front of hundreds of people.

Sanga* and I had already become friends after he attended my Cultural Orientation classes, where I taught him and other Congolese refugees practical lessons such as how to get a driver's license and how to apply for a job. These days, Sanga has a full schedule working full-time in manufacturing and taking steps toward applying for college. While I helped Sanga edit his story for grammar, all of these words are his own.

As he shared his story with me, I often had to blink back tears or hide my shock as he spoke about his life journey, from deep in the forests of the Congo to the heart of Houston...

I am 36 years old and I was born in a small city in the North Eastern part of the Congo.

map_of_democratic-republic-of-congo.jpg
congo_2936_600x450.jpg

I ran away from my country in 2005 after the death of my father, who was a district commissioner. My father was working to unite warring tribes; he wanted peace in our district. Because of this, some of the men from his own tribe killed him with a machete.

They were afraid of his betrayal, and so they killed their own brother. Then, they tried to kill my family, and so we had to flee. My family was separated; I fled alone to Kenya. On the way, I had to stay in hiding, because the rebel groups were everywhere - I hid on a train for four days. I was 30 years old, and I had never felt so sad  because I wasn’t sure what I would do.

hiding-on-train.jpg

When I arrived in Kenya, I slept on the streets for 2 days because I didn’t know what to do. After that, I went to a church. They helped me apply to be a refugee. During this time, a pastor took care of me and gave me a place to live. But, I was always afraid in Kenya because I didn’t have any legal rights and I was always afraid that the same people who killed my father would come to kill me. Once in Kenya I was attacked; I thank God I am still alive. After some time in Kenya, I began to teach French at a language school. I first applied for refugee status in 2005.

After waiting 7 years, in 2012, I finally received a letter that the United States had accepted me as a refugee to live in their country. I felt great when I got this letter. I knew there were so many people applying to live in the United States, so I was not sure if it would ever happen. I had been hoping for this for so long that I could not believe it.

When I first arrived in the United States, some things surprised me. For example, I was surprised by how people take care of other people here. I find the American people very caring.

I want to contribute to the American community. I want to help people, especially new refugees. In the Congo and Kenya, I was a medical first aid worker because I like helping people. I would like to do something similar in the United States one day to help the community. I know the feeling of what it is like to flee, the feeling of going through a war, and I feel that experience will help me support new refugees.

In Africa, there was no peace, so I could not learn or finish my studies. I feel like America is my land now. I am happy because I have found peace where I am. The people I have found here represent my family. If I have a problem, I can go to my new friends and talk to them and find a solution.

In my opinion, one of the greatest struggles for the African people is a lack of peace. This will be the most important thing for them – to learn to have peace. Peace allows refugees to work, study, and dream for their future. Without peace in Africa, there can be no hope and no progress. That is why I left. In my case, a lack of peace means I do not even know which of my brothers are still alive.

Even though I have had many difficult times, I am proud to be a called a refugee -- even Jesus Christ was a refugee. When he was born, some people wanted to kill him. His family had to flee, so even Jesus was a refugee like me. He had to leave his land because he was in danger of something happening to him. He was living in a state of fear, like me. I know what it is like to live in this state of fear. Now that I am living in the US, I am comfortable and I do not have fear.

I will always be proud to be called a refugee."

Sanga got to fly to Washington, D.C., to share his story. When I asked if he was nervous, he told me, "Of course I am nervous. But I must do this, because not everyone can speak the stories we know as refugees. Someone must tell the stories for those that did not survive."

IMG_1472.jpg

His favorite part of the trip was getting to see the White House in person after his speech.

May you be encouraged by Sanga's story, ever more aware of the blessings you have, and be reminded that within all of us, God has given us the spirit of a survivor.

*Sanga's name has been changed to protect his identity.

A Day in the Life: Rwanda

8:00 am:            Arise (rather groggy and grumpy - I am not friends with evil Morning.) 8:00 - 9:00:       Snack on some Psalms in my little tent - so tasty!

9:00 - 9:45:       Walk the long, dusty road to pastor’s house for breakfast

9:45 - 10:00:     Eat breakfast (same as every day) … hard-boiled egg, a miniature banana, black ginger tea with goat’s milk, and chapati (like a fluffy tortilla).

We were told that right after breakfast, we would leave for a “short” marriage party. It would be a “slight distance” away, and we were not sure how we would get there.

10:00 - 12:00:    Wait at the pastor’s house in confusion … where we discover it is a graduation party, not a marriage party. And that the pastor had already left. And that he is not sure how we will get there. Make small talk with the pastor’s wife (who speaks limited English) -  try to maintain eye contact as she breastfeeds her toddler, completely topless and very nonchalant about it.

Play “20 questions” with our team to kill time.

Sweat trickles down my back - the heat of the day arrives early here.

12:30 - 1:00:       We walk across town to our translators’ moms’ shop, where we will meet our translator, who will get us bus tickets to the graduation party.

1:00 pm:              Arrive at the shop, where mama wants to know where her daughter (our translator) is. We have no idea. Hands on wide hips, she is not happy.

1:00 - 1:40:          Sit on the steps and watch the cars go by. I daydream about macaroni and cheese. A precious and malnourished child wanders by, so my attention is averted to praying for her.

1:40 pm:               Our translator arrives, and after a short argument with her mom, we head to the bus station.

2:15 pm:               When we arrive at the bus station, we discover that the next bus does not leave until 3 pm. (We were told the party ended around 3). So we walk back to to the shop.

2:30 - 3:30:           Wait for a while longer, while many confusing phone calls fly around. A car arrives to pick us up, then speeds away as our translator explains that “it has two flat tires.”

4:00 pm:                We are picked up by a van. Thrilled and relieved, we stretch out on the seats and head off, bumping along back roads.

4:20 pm:                 In confusion, we are driven back to …. the pastor’s house!

Here, we are greeted by the pastor’s family, dressed to a hilt, AND the entire Voice of Trumpet Victory Choir from the pastor’s church, in their singing attire: shiny brown satin two-tone shirts and crisp pants, and long shoes that turn up at the toes.  All 16 of them pile into our van (how I wish Africans used deodorant!), along with their full arsenal of sound equipment … 2 huge box stereos, a sound board, several cables, etc. Some seats have 3 layers of people stacked high on each others’ laps.

In my little corner of the van, I thank Jesus (literally) that I am by a window, where fresh air can blow through, and that my compact size shows its advantage in this situation. My poor 6 ft+ team leader looks so uncomfortable.

4:25 pm:        After driving exactly 10 meters, the van is stopped. In a flurry of loud voices, the entire choir piles out of the van, shuffles around, and then piles back in. This happens twice more in the next half hour. But … we are finally on our way! Note that we are only 6 hours late.

During the van ride, Voice of Trumpet Victory Choir practices their repertoire, although they don't all sing the same song at the same time. It is loud enough that I hear it all through my headphones.

5:25 pm:       Arrive at the graduation party to many stares.

We visit the “bathroom” - a three-sided shack with a hole dug in the ground. The exciting part is that there is a hornet’s nest … in the hole where you are supposed to do your business.

I’m not sure how you’re supposed to do your business without angering the hornets. This is all made more exciting, since in Romania I discovered a serious allergy to flying, stinging insects. In Africa, even a trip to the bathroom is never routine. Somehow, we miraculously survive unscathed.

At the graduation party, we eat two very large dinners … one complete with animal intestines and soured milk sauce. We choke down what we can and try not to let the constant stares bother us.

We’re given a 2-minute warning that someone from our group will give a graduation speech. This should not be surprising, since at the last graduation we attended (in Tanzania), we were given a 1-minute warning that we would be performing a dance in front of hundreds. Yes, we did it, and no, it was not my proudest moment. At this graduation ceremony, however, my teammate Jake saves the day by giving a speech that is well-received. After that the stares are more kindly.

I am fascinated by a speech given by the family patriarch and his allusions to genocide. Their family was Tutsi, in the targeted group during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. His family fled to Uganda and most of them have known life as refugees. In a quiet, dignified voice, he glorifies God that he has allowed them to return to the homeland of their fathers, that he saved them while many others were slaughtered, and that now as his family - and his country - rebuilds, the graduation of his grandson marks progress for his family and hope for all.

Rwandans are a reserved, proud people that do not quickly open their emotions to outsiders - and they rarely talk of the horror in their recent past. To see a rare glimpse of their true feelings was a gift, and I felt honored to be included in such an intimate family gathering.

Little did I know the day was not even close to over yet …

6:45 pm:        Though the “party” portion of the ceremony is only beginning, we all (Voice of Trumpet Victory Choir included) pile back into the van - we are already late for evening church service. We bounce along the rutted, muddy, rocky, mountainous road to the city.

    Along the way, fields of wheat and corn unfold before me like a patchwork quilt - beautiful.     A storm rolls in, shades of steel in thunderous clouds above, brazen sunlight shining through breaks of gray. Clean, rain-soaked breezes wash through the open window and refresh the sweaty stale air inside the van. A great playlist rings in my ears, and I worship. My heart bobs above me, like a balloon on a string. It doesn’t feel like much holds me to the ground. Just when I think I can’t be more caught up in the rapture of the beauty around me, a lightening storm begins.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Psalm 19:1

Despite Genocide, God has smiled upon this land. The story of Rwanda is still unfolding, and I can’t help but sense that he is not done in East Africa yet - a feeling that was confirmed when …

7:30 pm:        We arrive at church, late for service, where everyone is singing a cappella and caught up in worship- undeterred that we have the choir and the sound system with us.

7:30 - 8:45:    Church and preaching/worship with our team.

8:45 pm:        We choke down our third dinner.

9:15 pm:         In the middle of a torrential downpour, all seven of us pile into a small four-door ancient car that in every moment feels like its last. We somehow make it home.

10:00 pm:       Collapse into bed and think, “Is this real life?

Voices in the Dark

Flickering candles pierce the dark African night.Crickets join husky voices lifted in Kinyarwandan song.

Call and response, rhythm of hands, shuffle of the dance.

The cadence breaking into complex syncopation. Hands feet limbs, lips cast shadows on the red dirt floor.

Pews of plastic chairs abandoned in favor of a wild praise dance.

Power outages do not stop worship here ...  I have a hunch Africans might be God's favorite.