I was reflecting the other day on how we cannot really empathize with the oppressed unless we ourselves have been oppressed.
God took this concept seriously enough that he taught the Israelites in the Old Testament to suffer through oppression under the Egyptians. Why would he do this? They were his chosen people. They had not wronged him greatly at that point and it was not a punishment for anything that they had done (as the exile was punishment later for their disobedience).
Apparently the desired end was to teach them compassion for the downtrodden. After their deliverance from Israel, in preparation for their nationhood, God gives them the precepts that he wants them to follow in order to show the world who he is and what he is like. In the books of the law, God showers Israel with commands on how they are to be kind and hospitable to others:
God tells them that because of their experience as an oppressed people, they should know how it feels and avoid wielding their new power to oppress others. Outsiders are to be treated equally, helped and loved with generosity:
Proverbs teaches us how God feels about the oppressed and their oppressors, always showing favor to the underdog:
The Psalms tell us that God is FOR the oppressed:
The prophets warned Israel that their oppression of others would result in punishment, and they were to turn to justice and righteousness instead:
And when Jesus identified himself as the Messiah in public ministry, he quoted Isaiah, saying:
God (through his Word) has so much to say about oppression and justice. He went to great (and painful) lengths to teach the Israelites about justice by subjecting them to injustice, so that they would remember how much they hated it when they were on the receiving end. And yet, as the generations wore on, they forgot, because the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren had not personally experienced it. The carnal desire for power overcame them, and they ended up oppressing their vulnerable just as much as their ancestors had been oppressed under Egypt. Their punishment was the loss of their privilege, nation, and power in exile.
Today we find American Christianity mired in arguments about whether social justice is worth pursuing, and more politically divided than ever. Frankly, the fact that we can even debate it is surprising given God’s unequivocal position outlined above. Could it be that we are so far removed from being oppressed ourselves (and so comfortable) that we have lost our compassion for the marginalized? And if we cannot find it again, what will God need to do to humble and remind us?
If even the Israelites lost their way and became oppressors after centuries of slavery in Egypt, how much less can we understand the oppressed as wealthy and free Americans? How much easier is it for us to become hardened to others and grab whatever power we can get, forgetting that the oppressed are made in God’s image just as much as we are? May God have mercy on us and show us the way back to him. Jesus came to set the oppressed free. If he lives inside of us, we should too.
While we are called to be radically generous with the poor from our own resources (Lev. 25:35; Deut. 15:10; Luke 3:11), an increasing body of evidence shows that aid relief and handouts are not necessarily the most helpful to the poor in the long run (Corbett & Fikkert, 2014; Fitzgerald, 2014; Lupton, 2012; Miller & Weber, 2014; Miller, 2016). In fact, they can do harm by creating dependency. Increasingly, economists and international development experts are redirecting charitable giving into sustainable development initiatives that do not steal the dignity of the beneficiaries, but instead affirm it.
Community development is a solution directly supported by biblical teaching. God has always wanted the poor to be a part of the solution instead of helpless victims. In the earliest law of God for His people, he commanded the Israelites to leave gleanings from their crops so that the poor could collect food for themselves (Lev. 19:10, 23:22). God notably did not command the landowners to collect the whole crop themselves and then give a part of it to the poor. What kindness for God to provide food for the poor that they could work for! Instead of being shamed by a handout, He wanted them to act even in the limited way available to them: collecting the gleanings for themselves.
Simply giving the poor the material items that they need falls grievously short of commands like “give justice to the poor and the orphan; uphold the rights of the oppressed” (Psalm 82:3, emphasis added) and “seek justice,encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17, emphasis added). Isaiah also adds, “Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people” (58:7, emphasis added). Giving money or things to poor people cannot remotely be said to be giving them justice, upholding their rights, defending their cause, or removing their chains. It is merely a temporary alleviation of their suffering. It does have value, but it is not full obedience to God’s call.
In fact, promoting handouts and ignoring development, justice, and human rights actually contributes to the oppression of the poor in unjust systems by allowing it to continue. Amos accused, “You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent” (5:11). Allowing the poor to be exploited by broken systems equates to theft in God’s eyes, even if it is not directly done by us.
Responding to poverty only from a paternalistic position shows that we have missed the message of Psalm 74:21: “Don’t let the downtrodden be humiliated again.” It is possible to humiliate others with our endless gifts, as they internalize the message that they are worthless and incapable, needing us to provide for them. In the long-term, this is a message that cripples.
We cannot claim to be Christians while we ignore the plight of those who need our help. Being a good global neighbor means noticing and caring what happens to people, and then acting with them to solve the problems that make them vulnerable. God includes the marginalized in His Kingdom. In fact, He identifies with them so thoroughly that He says what we do for them, we do for Him (Prov. 19:17; Matthew 25:40).
So what are we to do to help the poor? God tells us to invite them in, share life with them, and build community (Luke 14:13). We are not merely to throw things at them from a distance, we are to be in one another’s lives, share hospitality, affirm them, and give them a hand up. We are to empower them and help to solve the problems that make them poor. We are to actually fight for their rights, plead their case, get justice for them, and remove their chains. In short, we have to get up close and really love them.
During these past few weeks of life change due to the epidemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the unpredictability of life and how we respond to it. The state of emergency here in Costa Rica has allowed the government to end nearly all travel in and out of the country. Our two adult children are in the United States and we have no idea how soon we will be able to see them again in person. As we watch reports of rising unemployment, we wonder about the impact on our friends and families, and the global economy, and how long this will all last. We also wonder how this might impact our lives as missionaries, who have relied on the financial well-being and generosity of others for more than 15 years.
In many ways, I believe our calling and lifestyle have hardened us toward, or prepared us for, these ambiguous days we all find ourselves in. Loving people on the margins of society in a cross-cultural context involves certain relational risks—misunderstandings due to language barriers, breaking of cultural norms we didn’t know existed, and misplaced loyalties that often lead to betrayals large and small. In a word, the life Andrea and I were called to live, and the manner in which we live it, often leads us to feel as if we’re swimming in deep waters of uncertainty.
At times the lack of certainty is amusing and the waters aren’t so deep, such as when I use a Spanish word out of context and receive a bemused look in response. One classic example is when I told the neighborhood guard I’d been “hunting” him so I could pay him his monthly fee. The look on his face told me I’d committed an error. Later, I understood the phrase I used had an unintended sexual connotation in his ears. Oops. Maybe that was the reason for the smirk on his face when he saw me during the next weeks.
Usually, the waters are deeper and the waves of uncertainty seem more relentless, such as when we’re trying to mediate a conflict in La Carpio, or we find ourselves in a situation where we were betrayed. How direct should we be in a culture where often people don’t say what they mean, or say the opposite, to save face? Riding these waves and trying to keep our head above water can be disorienting and confusing.
Then there are the meta-narrative questions we ask God when the seas have been rough for an extended period of time. When I speak of God’s grace in a works-based culture and people’s eyes glaze over, does it mean they get it and think I’m a simpleton, or do they think I’m from another planet and simply don’t understand the elaborate scoring system they’ve engineered to earn God’s favor? When I work in a context where it’s more blessed to wound first than to be wounded, what do people think and believe when I love in a way that makes me vulnerable, when I love in a way that maybe even invites or allows the wound? Do they think I’m weak, or naïve?
I hope I’ve grown more comfortable with the swim strokes needed to stay afloat in these waters. I’ve learned, from repeated, hard lessons, that when my expectations aren’t met, or my “plan” for someone’s life doesn’t materialize, that’s okay. God has a different plan in mind—likely one I didn’t even imagine—and it’s one that’s much better than mine.
However, I swim with the certainty that the water is deep and know quite well that the shoreline can and will go in and out of view quickly. Further, the uncertainties we’ve faced in our lives working with the marginalized really don’t compare to the daily uncertainty many families there face. This past Monday, we supplied food to 45 families who’ve been directly impacted by the loss of jobs due to Covid-19. Many more families need help, but we contacted the 80 families in our student sponsorship program and found 45 were already in crisis. The hard truth is, we couldn’t give much to them and we don’t know when we will be able to help again.
Easter week is a great time for us to meditate on uncertainty and confusion. The people of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus as the triumphant king that would free them from the oppression of the hated Romans. A few days later they shouted for him to be crucified with common criminals—their plan for His life didn’t come to fruition. If he wasn’t the expected liberator, kill him.
Reading the scriptures that detail this week that culminates in the death and resurrection of Jesus, I’m encouraged by the fact that Jesus demonstrated a complete grasp of what was to happen, including specific details he shared with others. Jesus directed his followers where to find a colt that had never been ridden, and told them what to say to its owners. Later, He told his disciples where they were to meet to celebrate the Passover dinner, indicating they’d find a man carrying a water jug and they were to follow him to the house he’d enter. The upper room of said house would already be prepared. Finally, Jesus knew all the details of his excruciating execution, but embraced it because he knew the One who gives life to the dead and he trusted in Him for new life.
Amidst a lot of death and the truth that we simply don’t know when it will end, it gives us hope to celebrate Easter and the certain future that awaits those who are in Him. In addition, we draw comfort from the knowledge that nothing we are experiencing is a surprise to our Lord. This virus, the hunger of those we love, our economic situation, none of this is beyond His knowing. In addition, witnessing uncertainty on a global scale, wrestling with circumstances that are beyond our control, we celebrate this week not only a risen Savior, but joy in the full expression of His love for us.
“I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.”
-- Jeremiah 31:3
“He feels compassion for the weak and the needy, and he will rescue them. He will redeem them from oppression and violence, for their lives are precious to him.” – Psalm 72:13-14
We saw this verse at work through our adult literacy class, which recently graduated at the end of July after 6 months of diligent study. Most of the students were taken out of school in first or second grade in Nicaragua, through no fault of their own, by parents who didn’t see the value of educating them or needed them to work at home. And thus, a long road of oppression and violence began.
Illiteracy made them vulnerable. They were taken advantage of by others, financially, legally, vocationally, and socially. They were mocked and humiliated for not having a basic life skill that someone else decided they wouldn’t have. They were treated unkindly by that clerk who needed them to fill out paperwork or sign something. They were treated as less than by that neighbor whom they asked to read bills or letters for them. This was their life: darkness, ignorance, and vulnerability before the unscrupulous.
One of our star students, Karla, was robbed for years by her own husband, who would make withdrawals from the bank for her and keep some for himself, since she was unable to complete the transaction herself or even read the receipt. He told her she was too dumb to learn to read, that she would never be able to do it, and ramped up the persecution when she signed up for our class. He started an affair to punish her for seeking liberation through literacy. And he refused to come and see her graduate when she proved him wrong about her abilities.
Karla’s life is a shocking story to those of us in the developed world. But it’s symptomatic of the poverty and patriarchy in the developing world. Around the world, the first act of violence against a woman is frequently the act of choosing not to educate her—putting her at a deficit on the playing field of life so that she is dependent on others. This enforced vulnerability only leads to greater oppression and violence throughout her life. (This is why we prioritize keeping children, particularly girls, in school. If you want to sponsor a student to protect children from lifelong violence and oppression, click here to go to our sponsorship page.)
Those of us in the first world can smugly look from the outside and say, “she is poor because she made bad choices.” But the reality is that bad choices were made FOR her, and she has merely reaped the consequences by following the path made for her. And it all started with a lack of education that robbed her of the autonomy to make real choices at all.
But here is the good news: her life is precious to God. He redeems and rescues. He sends opportunities so that she CAN make good choices for herself. He liberates.
Karla’s story continues. She is putting her new reading skills to good use. She has now taken a municipal training course on mediation and peacemaking in communities. She is in our current Jobs for Life course, making a plan for her future educational and vocational development. And she is already studying with us to take her 6th grade exams and get her primary certificate, with plans to continue on to secondary. She says she has been freed from the control and manipulation of others and gives glory to God for this work in her life. Indeed, her life is precious to Him and He is doing a work of redemption.
Frequent first-time visitors to La Carpio see rusting shacks crowned with satellite dishes, and they say, “Aha! They’re poor because they make bad decisions!” A comment such as this was made recently during a six-week course on poverty alleviation that we taught at our church here in San Jose, Costa Rica.
A young man said that there isn’t really systemic poverty in Costa Rica. The poor are in Honduras, or Nicaragua or Haiti, he said, but the people in La Carpio really aren’t that poor. If they lack resources, it’s because they lack discipline or work ethic, he suggested, not opportunity.
The Poverty Cure video series we used as a teaching tool for this course suggests that the best way forward is through pursuing entrepreneurial solutions to poverty rooted in the creative capacity of the human person made in the image of God. The makers of the series challenge us to see marginalized communities not as filthy holes, or wastelands, but rather as regions teeming with untapped creative potential. It teaches that people are the solutions, not the problems.
Class 5 of the series is titled, “The Power of the Gospel” and it focuses on the necessity of not only helping people flourish economically, but also spiritually. If we help people attain wealth, but don’t address their character and identity, we’re not doing justice to them, their families, or their communities.
One of the discussion questions we pose during class is, “How can charitable work promote spiritual transformation without falling into the false and destructive idea that the poor are necessarily to blame for their poverty?” The first and more vociferous responses are usually, “But … they ARE to blame! They DO make bad decisions!”
Psychologists refer to this knee-jerk reaction as the “fundamental attribution error.” This is a concept that suggests we have a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character, while we excuse our own behavior according to our circumstances. I find myself in a tough financial situation because of a bad break, but others get into difficult situations because of their own fault. We always tend to give ourselves more grace than others. The concept is termed an error, implying that our judgment might just be incorrect.
The truth is, poor people do make poor decisions—at least at the same rate as those who are wealthy. However, the wealthy person has the financial resources, and sufficient relational connections, to recover more rapidly from poor decision-making.
But beyond that, poor decisions are not necessarily what made those people poor to begin with. Poor decisions might be an unhelpful response to their poverty, or an escape, but the reality is that there is multi-generational, systemic poverty. And that means that some people are poor NOT because of their own decisions, but what they were born into and the perpetuating nature of that system, which keeps them from opportunities to improve their situation.
One of the poverty alleviation experts interviewed in the series uses a great analogy to describe people raised in poverty. He says they are bonsai people. He says bonsai people don’t fully develop or grow because they aren’t planted in sufficient soil to contribute to their growth and development.
This is a useful metaphor because it encourages us to consider the circumstances of those living in poverty and what might limit their ability to overcome poverty. It’s here that we begin to discuss what poverty really is—a lack of life-giving relationships. There are many faces of poverty beyond the physical, including:
We are all born into abject spiritual poverty. It’s only in the light of God’s grace that we are able to see our own wretchedness. And it’s only in the light of God’s grace that we’re able to see our inestimable worth in His eyes.
So, the answer to the question we seek about how, in light of the gospel, we can avoid the trap of blaming the poor for their poverty, is to remind ourselves of our own poverty. We must necessarily show others the same grace we always naturally give ourselves (and more importantly, that we’ve received from Him). And that will result in compassion instead of judgment. Isn’t that a healthier place to start?
“It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian, you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
— The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
So after a year of relative convenience and ease in Northwest Arkansas, our first month in Costa Rica has been a challenge, mostly logistically.
We arrived to a broken microwave and missing desk as a result of our renters. No problem, we can get the microwave repaired and ask them to return the desk (still haven’t seen it). The aftermath of renting our home could have been so much worse.
After being in storage in a humid country, all our linens smelled terrible and required washing. Some were just a total loss. No problem, we’ll buy some new linens. We get unpacked and resettled in the house. Feels good to be home!
We get our phones working, start making contact with locals and reconnecting with people. One way we like to do that is having people over for dinner. One week in, our stovetop breaks, too (microwave still not repaired at that point). We get creative with making meals that only require an oven. It’s starting to feel a little like camping out, but hey, all these appliances are a luxury to begin with. Some people still cook over campfires after all. We start to wonder if we might be doing that in our backyard in another week. We are supposed to get the part to fix the stovetop in a week. It’s been three, and we still don’t have a working stove.
While waiting for our kitchen appliances to come back to life, we forge ahead and start car shopping (we sold our minibus when we went on furlough). Many cars don’t have the as-advertised mileage, some aren’t even in working order when we show up to see them (would it have been so hard to tell us before making the trip that it would be impossible to test drive the vehicle because the ignition is broken?), and some have clear problems we don’t want to inherit. Through patience and perseverance, we find the newest, lowest-mileage, and in-best-shape vehicle we can afford, with the help of our former pastor and current friend who is also a mechanic and car enthusiast. Praise God for His generous provision! We got a crazy good deal for what we bought, with older and much more used and abused vehicles asking the same price we paid for something much nicer.
We jump back into ministry, scheduling princess club, a Jobs for Life pilot with a prostitution recovery ministry, mothering/early-childhood-development workshops, a team from Nampa, Idaho the last week of July, and jumping back into tutoring, ESL and Saturday kids bible study. Life is good and we are glad to be back! These are our sweet spots, and we get to be in them with people we missed and love.
As soon as the team is here, Seth pulls his back helping unload suitcases. Then our washing machine breaks. You’ve got to be kidding me. The kids get to learn empathy for many of our Carpio friends who wash and wring by hand. That’s hard work and tough on your hands!
Jude has been struggling with ingrown toenails for some time, so we go to the doctor. We Uber across town, since Seth is with the team with the car. We get his prescription, it looks funny to me, and I ask the pharmacy person, “are you sure this is the concentrated version of this drug that the doctor ordered?” They assure me it is, so we pay and Uber it back home. Jude pulls it out of the bag, and it is vaginal cream. I’m super frustrated that they still gave us the wrong thing even after I asked. I decide to call and find out if they will exchange it before going over there (since traffic is terrible crossing town to go back and the receipt says no returns). While I’m on hold, my phone runs out of minutes and I get disconnected. I huff into Alden’s room and ask to borrow his phone to make the call. And I kid you not, I’m on hold and HIS phone runs out of minutes and I get disconnected again. I just stare at the phone for a little while, thinking “No way can something so simple be this hard.” [Long story shorter: Thankfully, they did make the exchange very graciously, in a country that is sometimes irrational about returns or exchanges. However, the process used up my whole afternoon.]
The team had lots of construction projects, street pedicures, and Mother’s Day pictures to do throughout this past week. On our first pedicure day, there is no water in La Carpio in the morning. Oh, did I mention the team was staying at the ministry center in La Carpio? No going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, or showering. And pretty hard to do pedicures with no water to wash feet. The men go to buy bottled water. Since everyone needs water, there isn’t any left in La Carpio, so they head out of the community to find some. Time to start pedicures comes and goes. Still no water. Bladders are about to explode. Finally, we ladies just circle up and pray. Again, God shows up. Before we were even done praying, we hear water running and starting to fill our holding tank! Personal hygiene is taken care of and pedicures are a hit for the rest of the morning.
On the same day, Seth’s and my phones stop having internet access for some unknown reason, even though we have purchased more minutes and are able to make calls just fine. I’m supposed to send a reminder about the pedicures, and can’t. I’m supposed to send individual messages to about 25 moms with appointments for Mother’s Day pictures with their kids that afternoon, and can’t. Thankfully, we had good pedicure traffic anyway, and later figure out how to use someone else’s phone as a hot spot temporarily and get the reminders out. People did show for their appointments and the pictures turned out so beautiful.
After a visit to the phone company to resolve the issue, our phones are still not behaving right (to this day), making communication between ourselves, with the team, and with ministry participants a challenge. But we learned how to make voice calls again instead of texting, reminding ourselves that we used to do this all the time before we could text. Wow, what a primitive concept.
The team was great, God was at work all week, they learned a ton and blessed many (including us), and they headed out this morning. Thankfully, we were able to go to the Hinton’s to do some laundry today, and Seth went to restock some groceries. Wait, why is our debit card being declined? He comes home to find out why we have no money, and it appears our card number has been hijacked and used over the weekend to buy $1400 worth of items all over the U.S.
An amazing end to an amazing month.
So much of this would not be a big deal if it happened in isolation, but the accumulation of it all in one short month has been a little much. I hope you have seen the opposition and frustration, but also the ways that God was with us along the way.
On the positive side:
Thanks for reading and journeying with us through the ups and downs of re-entry in Costa Rica. While we have had many challenges, we have also had many blessings.
On August 9, Seth and I fly to Houston with Alden, where he will start orientation at Rice University on August 12. On September 5, Annabel travels to Belfast, Ireland for a semester abroad this fall. And Jude and I re-start the homeschool engine with just he and I.
Please pray for us to get some of these silly broken things resolved so that life here can return to “normal crazy” instead of “ridiculous crazy,” and we can focus on ministry, the process for renewing our residency (which is always painful), and all the transitions for our family over the next month.
So how do I start this lol… erm, introducing myself is always difficult. I could say so many things! But let’s start with my names*. My name is Annabel Lee Sears, after the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. My name is missionary kid, third culture kid. My name is crazy cat lady that doesn’t like to wash her bedspread because she likes the way it smells of her cats. My name is wanderer, traveler, leaver, adventurer. My name is adrenaline junkie. My name is ornery troll, lover of laughs, south paw. My name is servant, beloved of God. My name is aspiring polyglot, lover of foreign cultures, homeschooled. My name is pierced, tattooed person. And my name is avid eater of chicken tikka masala with basmati and naan, and casados típicos with platanos and picadillo. My name is girl who needs a good fix of grunge, 60’s rock, and Beastie Boys every week. My name is please don’t talk to me—I love you and you’re fascinating to me but I’m scared of you. My name is anxiety, insecurity. My name is firstborn, big sister, favorite daughter (hehehe the only daughter). My name is reader of books like breather of air. My name is finder of hummingbirds in her backyard. My name is listener, not talker. So, don’t expect me to tell you all this the first time we meet, sweetheart.
And then you’re like oh, cool, nice name. So where are you from? …You’re definitely not making this easy for me! I could tell you I’m from Olathe, Kansas, which is where I have my first memories of sneaking around while my mom was napping. Or I could tell you I’m from Kansas City, Kansas, which is where I spent my childhood, growing up in a Mexican immigrant community. Where my best friends were just down the alley from me, where Guadalupe made us delicious meat from the carnicería on the corner and put hot sauce on everything, where we went to quinceañeras. But I could also tell you I’m from Costa Rica, which is where I spent most of my life that I can remember. Where it rains so much that the bugs come into our house and my little brother goes all karate sensei with the fly-swatter. Where ash from Volcano Turrialba covers everything in our house, where the beach is a couple of hours away. Where I get burnt under the equatorial sun, where I don’t fit in because of my light skin and hair, where I can’t speak my native language. Where the pollution makes my throat sting. Where the mountains surround me in the valley and make me feel safe. Where I love to be… But where I’m leaving. I could tell you I’m from Spring Hill, Kansas, where we stay when back in the states, where we get together with extended family for holidays, where I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere, where I sleep on the futon in my grandma’s basement. Who knows, maybe in the future I could tell you that I’m from Siloam Springs, Arkansas, where I’ll be attending college, getting my first job, learning new languages. Basically, I like to think I’m from nowhere, because I’m from everywhere.
So yeah, nice to meet you. Or in Hebrew—naim meod. Tell me all about yourself now, I want to learn from you.
*Disclaimer: I was inspired to write this by a Ted talk called “The Muslim on the airplane.” Watch it.
Furlough may seem like a strange thing to many non-missionaries. After all, most other people don't get to just take months "off" from their jobs and still get paid, right?
In truth, in many different ways, it's not really time "off," as we use this time to raise funds, build relationships with donors, and speak at churches so that we can (a) share what God is doing in other contexts and how the Great Commission is being fulfilled, and (b) go back to the field without financial worries about how our ministry programs will be funded, or where our next paycheck will come from and. Although we now have so many ways to communicate from a distance electronically, that's a mixed blessing, because it gets harder and harder to get people's attention in midst of the constant noise. We live in a world with unprecedented distractions at our fingertips. There's just nothing like face-time (not the app, but actually being together in person) for sharing your passion.
In addition to these aspects of furlough, we'll also have a formal staff role at JBU shepherding missionary kids and international students in attendance there, helping them with the myriad transitions that must be made in a move to the U.S. from outside the country. This role is called Missionaries-in-Residence (or MIRs for the hip), and while it doesn't pay a salary, we will be provided with a furnished house to live in and certain tuition benefits for our kids during the year we are there. While an official State-side role is not always an aspect of furlough, finding a way to bless those in the U.S. with all you have learned is generally considered a good way to grow God's kingdom during furlough, and this one really fits.
However, all that said, there IS also an aspect of "rest" to furlough in terms of getting some healthy distance from your sometimes-bizarre "normal." What do we have to rest from?
Undoubtedly, many people work very hard in the U.S. But adding the above stressors to a heavy workload can put missionaries into a tailspin if they don't hit the reset button every now and then. I wish it were different and we could perfectly follow Christ in selflessness, humility, kindness, and patience, without needing these crutches of security, comfort, and receiving from others. Certainly this life teaches us how weak we are, but that's not always a bad thing, since it is when we are weak that God is shown strong.
Headaches and migraines, high-blood pressure, persistent and painful skin conditions, acid reflux and heartburn, and diabetes were common complaints we heard from our neighbors in La Carpio last week as they visited a two-day health clinic we offered with a team from Vox Dei Community Church in Belton, Missouri.
Others came simply because they’d heard we were offering free multivitamins and a course of anti-parasite pills. As I translated for our friends and neighbors while they sought the advice of the medical professionals from Vox, I gained more insight into the burdens they carry every day, one of which is depression.
J. shared how she frequently realizes she’s been crying and has no idea why. M. told us through tears how she struggles with depression she attributes to her chronic health issues and problems at home. As I listened to story after story of depression and the lack of ongoing care, it shook me up.
I was moved by people’s suffering and inspired by how they continue to carry their burdens with strength all while lacking any real hope of future change. I was also stirred personally because I’ve struggled with depression for years.
“Staring into fog” is the phrase that commonly comes to mind when I think about my lowest moments, the times when I’ve been mired in depression—oftentimes without fully being aware of how the clouds have enveloped me. A number of years ago, it wasn’t uncommon that I’d realize I’d been staring into fog for more than 30 or 45 minutes without realizing it.
I hate staring into fog. I hate how it makes my family feel—unwanted, underappreciated and unloved. I hate how staring into fog makes me feel—isolated, numb, confused and alone.
During the last year or two, I’ve become much better at identifying the fog as it begins to pool around my legs, and how to disperse it. I’ve begun to learn what my mind and body need to fight off this persistent foe, including good sleep, regular exercise and other healthy habits.
For me, much of what I needed was education about what was happening to me, and the patient love of my wife and family. I’m by no means fog-free. After having four short-term teams in two months and a lot of construction going on, I feel the fog gather at my ankles. The truth is, I can’t make depression go away by the force of my will. I can’t decide it’s gone or ignore it like the pain in various joints when I jog.
My local therapist told me its quite common for people doing the work we do to experience burnout and the fog of depression. She says that our capacity for stress is reduced from ongoing conflict, relational tension and exposure to trauma and suffering. She also encourages me that its possible to recover and regain stress tolerance and leave depression behind.
I feel hopeful for the future and believe the timing of our furlough and the role as Missionaries in Residence at JBU is a gift from God. Please pray with me for continued healing and discipline in healthy habits that keep me from staring into fog. In addition, please pray with me for our neighbors in La Carpio who experience fog on the margins as a normal part of life. I stand in awe of the burdens they carry.
As we begin 2017, we have some exciting news to share with you! This year marks the 5-year anniversary for giveDIGNITY. That means that it's time for a furlough to get some perspective, spend time with family, and do some more intensive fundraising for the next phase of our ministry.
As many of you know, Annabel is off to college this fall. We're pleased to announce that we have been selected as the John Brown University Missionaries-in-Residence for the 2017-2018 academic year. This means that we will live in Siloam Springs, AR from August 2017 to May 2018. Our job will be to care for and shepherd the missionary kids and international students attending JBU (about 150), and promote missions on campus. The university will provide us with furnished housing on the campus and tuition remission for Annabel's freshman year. We will continue to receive our salary through our ministry-raised support, as is customary for missionaries on furlough.
This time will be an enormous blessing for a number of reasons.
What does this mean for you?
We will need you to continue your financial gifts to our ministry, as we will continue to need a paycheck during our furlough, and we will also continue all current child sponsorships. In addition, we need your prayer to cover all aspects of this transition. And finally, we will have a 5-year anniversary bash in KC this fall, so we hope you'll plan on coming to celebrate with us!
What does this mean for giveDIGNITY?
We are putting a team of volunteers (and hopefully some new staff!) in place that can keep our basic programs going, so that the people of the community will continue to be blessed by the ministry during our absence.
So please join us in praising God for providing for our family in such a beautiful and marvelous way! He is so good and always has a plan that is good for us, even when we don't know what it is and can't see it coming! Stay tuned, and we will keep you up-to-date with more information via our newsletters and our blog at www.give-dignity.org. And please always feel free to contact us with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or 913-933-0044.
Blessings, The Sears Family
Quote of the month
""At the margins is the only place the Church will have credibility."