Monday, July 27, 2015

A Korean Blessing

A Korean Blessing

A little over a week ago, I was included on email between an old friend who works for Passport camps, my pastor, and a Korean church in Goldsboro NC.  They were looking for someone to drive a youth group from a Passport camp in Greensboro to the church about 2 hours away.  

Being unemployed and willing to do anything to fill my days, I volunteered.  I picked up the 11 passenger rental van and arrived at the college as the camp was ending for the week.  I was introduced to the group, 8 Koreans students and their leader Debora.  I falsely assumed that Deborah was their American guide, but later learned that she was originally from Tanzania, now lived in Korea and was visiting the United States for the first time herself.  

      Their luggage filled the entire back row of the van. The kids hugged their new American friends goodbye, and piled into the van.  I plugged the address into Google maps, and noticed something a little unusual.  Our destination, was an airport access road and as best I could tell, there was nothing except a few warehouses there.  

We left Greensboro, and the kids laughed and reminisced about funny camp stories in Korean.  I had expected to converse with Debora, but most of the time she was chatting in Korean with the kids. Eventually we made polite, if stilted,  conversation and it became clear that although she spoke well, English was not her first or second language.  

     It turns out that they had arrived from Korea just a week previously and had drove from the airport to Greensboro College where they attended the week long camp.  I asked where they were going next and she told me Washington DC and then New York city.

    Only a few years ago, I was scared to go to New York city and I have a pretty decent command of the English language.  I couldn’t imagine being in a strange country, relying on the kindness and hospitality of others to get me around.  I asked the kids if there were any American celebrities they wanted to see in New York.  “Brad Pit “T”, Bruno Marrs, and Will Smith.”  They asked if it was okay to take a picture with a celebrity.  I suggested asking permission first.

    The kids played music like all teenagers do. Theirs was a mix of Korean Pop, songs learned at camp the week before, and American hip hop.  They sang along phonetically, and I winced a few times when the “N” word would came up, but since no one seemed to know what it meant, I wasn’t going to explain it.  The one song I did recognize and sing along with was “Play That Funky Music White Boy.”

    It was unanimously decided where we would eat lunch.  When in Rome do as the Romans.  When in America, eat at “American McDonalds”.  They all took selfies flashing peace signs in front of the Golden Arches, and raved about the delicious Big Macs and Fries.

    After lunch, I asked Debora if she knew who was meeting us.  She told me that “The Wifi is no good so  I can’t call.”  I panicked mildly when I realized that I might get to to airport industrial park with 9 Koreans and not actually meet anyone.  In a “worst case scenario” I thought, “What will I do if the people I am supposed to leave them with look shady?”  

   The kids were all half asleep when I turned on to our destination’s street.  There was a small church with a sign in Korean out front.  The kids woke up and cheered.  In a fake serious tone, I said, “Now guys, I don’t know if this is the right place.  That sign is in some foreign language and I can’t tell what it says. “  They laughed and insisted “No! Stop! Stop!”  

   I parked and went inside where two small Korean ladies looked at me quizzically.  “I have some students for you?” They nodded and went out to welcome the kids.  They had been preparing a meal in the kitchen and the whole building was filled with exotic smells of meat and spices.  

    The kids who were half asleep, their internal clocks thinking it was still two in the morning,  minutes ago came alive.  It was in that moment, I was reminded of a passage from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

    The barman looked at it and then looked at Ford. He suddenly shivered: he experienced a momentary sensation that he didn't understand because no one on Earth had ever experienced it before. In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth. On Earth it is never possible to be further than sixteen thousand miles from your birthplace, which really isn't very far, so such signals are too minute to be noticed.

    I felt for the first time the subtle but perceptible feeling of how far they were from home.  How just seeing their language on a sign, smelling their native foods, and being greeted with Korean hospitality changed the vibe of the whole party.  

    I helped them unload their bags and was about to depart when Debora told me they wanted to get a picture and pray for me.  We posed flashing our peace signs and then they got in a circle and held hands. We all bowed our heads and Debora prayed “God thank you for delivering us safely here and protecting us.  Be with Matthew as he returns home to his family.  Bless his family and help him to find the job that is right for him.  Thank you for his church who took care of us.”  The prayer continued but I was distracted by the tears rolling down my cheeks.  I didn’t know why I was so moved, but I was helpless.  I knew that the prayer was not some magic incantation that would somehow change the minds of people who decide if I would be hired for a job.  I was caught off guard by the sincerity and gratitude they showed to God and to a myself, a stranger.  

    I thought of the word “Blessing” and how this moment would forever define the word for me.  

    I also thought about how quickly our roles had reversed.  For a short time, I was their host.  I was worried for their safety.  Despite being in a strange country and relying on the hospitality of strangers and the providence of God, they had the audacity to intercede on my behalf.  

    I held it together, said my “Goodbye”, and watched them enter the church to enjoy the feast that had been prepared for them. (Not sure that it could live up to the American Big Macs enjoyed earlier in the day.)  They gave me a gift, a glass display with what I assume is the 23rd Psalm on it in Korean.  Either that or “Play that Funky Music White Boy”  I prefer not knowing.   


Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Passport version 2.0

Growing up in a Southern Baptist church, I spent at least two weeks of every summer at various Vacation Bible Schools, Retreats, or Church Camps. I fondly remember my Bible Study leader “Bob” who was also the camp preacher and had a wickedly subversive sense of humor.  I also remember sitting through a sweaty evangelical preacher at another camp who preached a terrifying sermon about the dangers of “backsliding” to a room full of teenagers who were really just getting started on their “sinning careers”.  

    Camp helped me make lots of friends, and gave me many strong, strange, funny, and emotional memories that helped make me who I am today.  I remember sharing a canoe with an inmate who had been given a day pass with several others to come and speak to campers about prison life.  I remembered thinking, “Maybe this wasn’t the best idea,” as the two of us cast off in the small boat, but ended up having a good conversation with him.

     When I was older, I would go to “Centrifuge”,  a series of camps around the country with high energy college age leaders who would offer Bible study in addition to more traditional activities like hiking and arts and crafts.

I was relieved when I learned about Passport, a set of camps with a similar structure, but with a theology more in line with the progressive and inclusive ideals of our church and family.  Former College Park ministers, Marnie and Daniel now work for Passport, and if they spoke so highly of it, I knew it would be a great experience for my son, Isaac.

Passport was one of many camps that we had signed Isaac up for this summer.  It was just a few weeks before the end of school when I was suddenly laid off from my job.  In the first few hours of shock and grief, I decided that one of the guidelines I was going to live by during this transitional phase was that I would keep an open mind about new experiences and say “Yes” to any opportunities that presented themselves.

I had sincerely hoped that opportunities like working as Scarlett Johansen’s sunscreen steward, or getting paid to watch someone’s beach house would be the ones that would present themselves.  Instead,  Michael asked if I wanted to go to Passport Kids.  

    Didn’t he know that I don’t like kids?  They are loud and don’t listen to their parents and are always looking at their screens.  Oh, I know, I have a kid and I really like him a lot, but he does all of those things as well.  The difference is, I have some measure of control over him.  I didn’t know if I could handle living in a house with 9 children without accidentally teaching them some new colorful phrases to take home to their folks.

Still, I had made the decision to say “Yes” and I knew that this opportunity may never come my way again.  The boy will only like being around me for a few more years.  I reluctantly agreed to go with the kids to Passport.

We arrived and negotiated who was getting what room in our cabin.  The kids went to opening night worship, and I sat outside and nervously checked my phone where I learned that one promising job interview had been cancelled and another required more information that I didn’t have access to.  I started to panic, but realized that there was nothing I could do.  As the worship service ended, I slipped in so I could attend the adult Bible study.  One of the Passport staff informed the room that they still needed two volunteers to be assistant Bible study leaders.  

My hand was raised before I even thought about it, a side effect of my new “Just say yes” policy.  As I got up to meet my new Bible study group, I realized I had just forfeited hours of napping and reading time to sit with kids I didn’t even know.

The Bible study class didn’t have any College Park kids in it.  The Bible study leader, an energetic, enthusiastic, young seminary student welcomed me and gave me a handout with instructions for the day’s Bible study.  I started to check my email for news of any job prospects when I noticed a suggestion in the flyer “Do not spend the Bible study looking at your phone.  Be attentive.  It lets the kids know that they are important to you.”

    I was struck. I put the phone in my backpack and helped the leader take up forms where the kids signed up for activities they wanted to do during free time.  I deadpanned to the kids as I was collecting their forms, “If you signed up for the skydiving class, please turn in the notarized permission slips that your parents sent with you.”  Most kids chuckled, but some asked if their was really a sky diving activity.  

“Not without a notarized permission slip their isn’t” I responded.  The Bible study leader, who clearly regretted having “assistance” at this point, nervously assured the kids that I was only joking.

The theme for the week was “Revolution” and the first day’s key word was “Flip” as in “To look at something from another perspective.”  One example of changing one’s perspective on life is to go from having a full time job for 18 years, to not having any idea where or when your next job will be.  

When the time came for lights out that night, evidently none of the children at this church ever had to brush their teeth, shower, or even put on pajamas at night because when we called for “Lights Out” You would have thought we asked the kids to map the human genome in Cantonese.  “No you don’t need to find your kindle case, brush your teeth.” “Yes we really are turning off the lights, go to bed.”  “No, you are not drinking a Mountain Dew.  You can have water.”

What surprised me was that the kids actually listened to me.  If I said, “Go to bed” they would start to protest, but any response other than “The house is on fire,” was met with the refrain “Go to bed,” and within 15 minutes it was quiet.  Thus the first Passport miracle.  

The second morning’s key word was “Stand”, and the kids talked about standing up for and beside the broken, the unpopular, and the overlooked people.  It was then I realized the difference between this camp, and the ones I went to when I was a kid.  These kids were not learning that being a Christian was about being well-behaved, and not swearing, and showing up for Acteens on Wednesday nights.  They were learning about a two thousand year history of defying rules set to oppress the weak.  They were being told that they were a part of the bigger story of the church every time they offered kindness to kid at their school who sat alone at lunch.

I knew this was not the same kind of church camp that warned me of the grave dangers of Dungeons and Dragons and Def Leppard.  This was important.

Michael encouraged us to sign up to help with activities during the day.  I offered to help run the ultimate frisbee game, thinking that the kids would be amazed at the skills I learned from our weekly games.  Instead, after the first game, the kids insisted that all of the adults sit out. So instead I ended up throwing a frisbee with a little girl named Emily who had not worn closed toe shoes and couldn’t play with the others.  For the rest of the week, whenever I saw her, she would pantomime throwing a Frisbee to me, and I would pantomime catching it.  It was these small holy moments that struck me how important it was to connect with people, no matter who.

Back at the cabin, during free time, I got to share some of my favorite games with the kids from College park, Pit, Aquarius, and Befuzzled.  I assumed that I would spend the whole time being referee, but the kids understood the games quickly and helped each other follow the rules.

On the last night, there was a talent show.  I had been to enough camps to know that talent shows usually made me feel bad about my inability to hide how funny I thought awkward situations were.  The night started off promising with a few show tunes, a poetry reading, and an impressive display of tap dancing.  

Then a little boy in a Spiderman costume walked out on stage alone to the single microphone and dedicated his act to Adam West and Burt Ward.  What followed was a once in a lifetime event as the boy proceeded to sing a semi-improvised, three minutes song about Batman, acapella to a completely silent room.  It was a wonder to behold.  There was a palpable tension in the room as people didn’t know whether to laugh or kindly escort him off stage as each new verse revealed more background to the Dark Knight’s history.  The song eventually ended and the room sat for a few seconds in confused silence before erupting in enthusiastic applause.  This kid was a rock star for one night.  Passport campers embraced him for doing his thing with his heart on his sleeve.

The last morning came with a great deal of cajoling.  It was like herding housecats, trying to break up games of wall ball so rooms would get cleaned up and sleeping bags rolled up.  I was tired and wanted to see my wife, use profanity, sleep in my own bed, and drink a beer, but at the same time, I knew that something very special was coming to an end.  

As adults we take vacations with our immediate family, but it is rare to wake up and say good morning to our friends and good night to them as we go to sleep.  We often lament the loss of freedom that today’s children have compared to our own childhood, but there are still glimpses of it at camp.  

When the kids would ask me if they could climb on rocks, my response was “Did any other adult tell you not to? No? Then I say ‘ Go for it!” One girl from another church seemed surprised that I was a parent at all.  She asked why I wasn’t watching over my son.  I reminded her that her parents were at home and not watching her, trusting her well being to strangers like myself.

I know that Passport is engineered to help nurture children, but the week I spent taught me a great deal about who I really am. You will never hear me say “Everything happens for a reason.”  I believe that we make what we can of the situations we are in.  For that, I thank Michael, this church, and my family for the opportunity to spend a week at Passport camp, and offer this challenge to everyone who can hear my voice.  What are you going to do to nurture the children and youth around you this week? Every single one of you is welcome and fully equipped to be a positive force in the life of a young person at this church.  Will you say “Yes”?


Passport version 1.0

    As a rule, I don’t like children.  They can be cruel, self centered, and defiant.  People will often point out that I in fact have a child, and I explain that he is the exception because he is mine.  

    Can he be cruel?  Occasionally.  Is he self centered? Just take him to Target some time.  Defiant? Every night is a complex series of arguments, negotiations, and stall tactics to delay the inevitable bed time.  The difference is, he is my kid.  I am doing my best to mold him into a non-smoking, minimal tattoo having, prison avoiding adult with a job and a reasonably happy and fulfilling life.  

    By the same logic, I feel pride when he masters a new skill for the first time or finds something he is passionate about or conquers his fears.   

    I like my kid. Just not all the others, because they aren’t mine.  

   I was recently laid off from my job, and one of the guidelines that I set up early on for my unemployed time was to say “Yes” to as many different experiences that I could.  When I was asked if I wanted to chaperone a trip to Passport Kids, I said “Yes” before I could talk myself out of it.  

   I was not looking forward to being around so many kids.  I saw how children behaved at scout meetings and school events.  They were loud.  They didn’t listen to anyone.  Maybe I could just nap in the cabin during the day and work on my resume’.  

    Within the first few hours of Passport Kids, the adults met for the first time.  One of the camp leaders asked if anyone would volunteer to assist with a Bible study group.  I was really mad at myself for making that stupid “Say ‘Yes’ To Everything” rule.  

     I walked into a Bible study class that was already under way.  I introduced myself, and the Bible study leader asked me to collect the forms where the children wrote out their choices for afternoon free time.  As I was collecting the forms, I addressed the children with a serious tone, “If you are signed up for the afternoon skydiving class, please turn in the notarized permission slips that your parents sent with you.”  A few asked incredulously for more information about the fictional  skydiving class, and I replied with a deadpan, “I’m sorry, but you can’t take it unless your parents had the form notarized.”  A couple other kids realized that I was joking, and the Bible study leader (who I think may have regretted asking for an assistant) assured the kids that there was not in fact a skydiving class.  

    After Bible study I ended up chatting with a couple of the kids about comic books and movies.  Later at dinner, I overheard some girls from the Bible study group talking about soccer and we talked about who we like better  on the U.S. team, Rapinoe or Wambach.  

    That night, when the kids from our church were starting to wind down, I introduced them to one of my favorite card games “Aquarius”.  There were a few disputes, but generally they resolved them on their own with the occasional good natured teasing.  

    As the week wore on, I found myself being more patient with the kids from our church and in my Bible study group than I ever thought I would be.  I would correct them when they were out of line, but found that I was also incredibly proud of them when they would lead in worship, offer insightful answers during group times, or show kindness to other campers.  

    It slowly dawned on me, that not only were the kids from College Park Baptist becoming “My” kids, but I realized that as part of the family of God, I was responsible for and connected to every kid at Passport.

    We tend to think of our families as insulated units. We mentally compare how are kids are doing compared to others.  Spending the week at Passport Kids reminded me that I have a duty to nurture all kids, not just the ones whose parents look and think like my wife and I.

    I still only like “My” kids, but a week at Passport showed me that I have a much bigger family than I once thought, and it keeps growing.  

A Dark and Urgent Vacation

A Dark and Urgent Vacation  What the Hell now?

    The pre-processing part of the mind is a nice gal, but a little flighty.  She makes note of every item of information you process from “Wow that dog is really brown!” to “I think that Buick is about to run me over!”  with the same bit of forethought. She is a great gal, but she kept betraying me whenever I would walk through the kitchen and see my work shoes.  “Say aren’t those your work shoes?  You need to remember to take them back to work with you on Monday!”  Only there was no work on Monday.  

A few hours previously I had been notified that my services were no longer needed at the office I had worked at for almost 5 years.  I finished my open files, cleaned off my desk and walked out.  I held it together well.  I even joked with the people who were firing me. I did not acknowledge what had just happened to my co-workers.  The only time I felt the corners of my eyes leaking was while I was cleaning out my desk.  The office was empty and I turned my “Running Mix” of music on loudly because , “What were they going to do?  Fire me?”  It was the most timid act of rebellion in history.  Most of the music on the list was upbeat, with a driving tempo to inspire me to keep running on those few times I did get out and exercise.  Then the song “This too Shall Pass” came on by Ok Go.  

You know you can't keep lettin' it get you down
And you can't keep draggin' that dead weight around.
If there ain't all that much to lug around,
Better run like hell when you hit the ground.

The lid I was holding down on anger, desperation, and self pity slipped a little, when the music on my phone seemed to be aimed directly at me in that moment.

Let it go, this too shall pass.
Let it go, this too shall pass.

I balanced the boxes on top of each other, turned in my key, shook my ex boss's hand firmly and wished him luck.  

What the hell do I do now?

I called my wife. I called my preacher. The third person I called was a manager at a competing lab.  Then I called a friend who travels the country making sure that vascular labs are up to the current codes.  Less than an hour without a job and I was already on the hunt.  

     As I sat alone in the empty house, frantically calling everyone I knew in my field, I remembered something important.  Nothing is ever accomplished on a Friday afternoon.  I gave myself permission to pretend like I still had a job for another two days.  During those two days, I kept unemployment off my mind by focusing as much as I could on the very moment I was in.   

     I am not sure what other encouraging guides to unemployment suggest, but I can not endorse strongly enough the “Get with people you love and get absolutely shit faced” method of coping.  I think this is the method Dave Ramsey suggests.

In a complete surprise to me, the sun came up the next morning, and everyone else did not seem as completely terrified as I was.  On the contrary, friend after friend told me about the times they got laid off.  These were smart, professional, successful people that I admired and they had been in exactly the same position I was in and came out on the other side.  They knew how it felt and were offering sympathy and advice, and although they didn’t realize it, just telling their stories showed me that being laid off was not the end of the life.

  I also remembered the times when they were laid off and felt guilty that I didn’t offer any comfort then.  

    When you have a job, life has structure.  Your clothes are stored to efficiently choose them for work.  I had alarms set at various intervals and I knew how many times I could hit the snooze bar, get a shower, and still be at work on time.  

With no job, there is a tremendous void.  The temptation to indulge in binge watching Netflix and playing Fallout on the X-box was strong.   I knew I had to be deliberate about finding structure, making time to exercise, and also setting a time each day when I allowed myself to enjoy something and not worry about the situation.  

On Saturday morning, I rode my bike to the park and a local trail riding group was hosting an informational meeting.  I had only had my bike for a few weeks and signed up for a “Beginners Trail Ride.”  As I was waiting nervously in the group, I heard someone call my name.  “Matt? Is that you?  It’s me! Tony!  You scanned my legs and helped with the surgery!  Thank you so much! They feel great, but I am coming in to see you this Thursday to take care of some small spider veins.”  

I smiled and turned on my work enthusiasm, and asked how his legs were, but just felt sick.  I didn’t want to tell this guy that I had just been fired, and was imagining his thought process when he went in on Thursday and asked where I was, and wondered why I was no longer working there and why I didn’t mention it on Saturday.