Tuesday, February 23, 2010

a light to shine in this dark world

37 But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. 38 This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:

“Lord, who has believed our message?
To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”

39 But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,

40 “The Lord has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
and have me heal them.”

41 Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory. 42 Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. 43 For they loved human praise more than the praise of God.

44 Jesus shouted to the crowds, If you trust me, you are trusting not only me, but also God who sent me. 45 For when you see me, you are seeing the one who sent me. 46 I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark. 47 I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it. 48 But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken. 49 I don’t speak on my own authority. The Father who sent me has commanded me what to say and how to say it. 50 And I know his commands lead to eternal life; so I say whatever the Father tells me to say.”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Te daré lo mejor de mi vida

It was just lightly drizzling—or “spitting,” as Emily says they call it in Washington—as I walked back from church a few minutes ago. The church has outgrown its building and the extra room that it’s renting, so they’re constructing a new building with a capacity for 1,000 people. To raise money for the project we shared a meal of typical foods from many of the countries represented in the congregation: Ecuador, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and the United States, courtesy of the tomato soup (Gail Rohland’s recipe) that I made. I went grocery shopping yesterday and made the soup last night at the home of one of the leaders of the young adults’ group before seven of us girls went to the movies to see ‘Up In the Air’ (which was ok, but nothing more than that).

By the time I left the church after the meal and the talking and cleaning up it was after 4 pm. I walked back toting my overloaded backpack, container of leftover tomato soup, and the umbrella which was lent to me by one of the volunteers from ‘Solidarios’ (the government-funded organization which sends volunteers out into the city for three hours every weekday night to give coffee and cookies to the homeless people). I stopped twice to reread and take notes on Don Quijote de la Mancha in preparation for my exam on Tuesday, but when it started to rain I decided to head home.

As I neared the intersection where I needed to turn from San Jacinto onto Lopez de Gomara I met the homeless man who I frequently see shuffling along on the sidewalk in that area. He’s probably 50-60 years old and has a head full of disheveled gray hair which is almost as long as the beard that covers half of his chest.

“¿Un poco de comer?” (A little to eat?) he asked me as I neared him, motioning towards the container of tomato soup.

He had a point. What better way to help a homeless person than with some extra food? But I didn’t have anything with which to serve him and I didn’t want to give him the container which Veronica had just loaned me. So instead I wrinkled up my face a bit, said an “Ayyy” of apology, and kept walking.

As I did so I was reminded of a question that haunted me a few days ago: “Did Jesus ever walk past homeless people?” I decided that it would make a good Facebook status, and began to mentally edit the best way to phrase the question for my post.

“Rachel Jonker wonders, ‘Did Jesus ever walk past homeless people?’”

I figure he must have. The Bible never says that he healed everyone. But it also never says that I am excused from expressing compassion when I don’t have a way to serve tomato soup.

As I crossed onto Lopez de Gomara I realized that I was singing the song which has been stuck in my head since we sang it last night at the young adults group.

“Necesito decirte, lo que siento ahora.

(I need to tell you what I feel right now.)

No sé cómo expresarme, ante tu hermosura.

(I don’t know how to express myself before your beauty.)

Te adoraré, mi rey eterno.

(I will adore you, my eternal King.)

Te alabaré, eres todo para mí.

(I will praise you, you are everything to me.)

Te daré, lo mejor de mi vida.

(I will give you the best of my life.)

Te daré, lo mejor cada día.

(I will give you the best every day.”

As I stepped up onto the curb I hit a mental blockade: I had just walked past a homeless man and now I was promising God that I would give him the best of my life—every day. It’s one thing to promise to do that in general with the big things, but I had just said that I was going to do it every day. Clearly, if I am going to give God the best of my life I have to give him the best of every day. But then that applies to today too.

“Oh dear,” I thought. “Now what do I do?”

Well, I kept walking. I tried to tell myself that I’d come back some other day when I was more prepared. But I couldn’t shake that irksome voice which kept telling me that I knew better than that. I recognize that voice more often now, perhaps because I listen to it more than I used to. Before I only associated it with times when I knew that I should do something but rationalized my way out of it. I put my rationalization powers in full force and nearly persuaded myself that it was a crazy to turn around and try to give tomato soup to a homeless man when I didn’t have anything with which to serve it. I wondered if I would feel justified in walking past Jesus because I didn´t have a spoon with which to serve him. But I kept walking, non

But then when I was half of the remaining distance home I remembered that I had an extra bocadillo (sandwich) and an orange from my señora in my backpack which I hadn’t eaten because I ate the meal at the church. That settled it. So I set down my heavy load, dug around until I found the food, and walked back in the direction from which I had come.

I stopped at two bars before I found one which had a plastic cup for the tomato soup. My back, neck and shoulders whimpered a bit about having to carry my pack that much further, but my resolute spirit shushed them. I was at peace because I knew that I was doing the right thing.

I found him a short distance up San Jacinto, closer that I had expected.

“Hola” I told him, “Vuelvo con un vaso para servirte la sopa. Lo siento que no tuve algo antes. Mira, y aquí hay una bolsa con un bocadillo y una fruta que también puedes tener.” (“I’m back with a cup to serve you the soup. Sorry that I didn’t have something before. Look, and here is a bag with a sandwich and a piece of fruit that you can have too.”)

He took the bag in silence and I set the Tupperware container on top of one of the ubiquitous lamp-post mounted garbage cans and dipped into it with the plastic Cruzcampo beer cup. He shuffled over and accepted the cup with a grimy hand with long yellow fingernails. As tipped his head back to drink it some spilled out of the cup and onto his chest, leaving behind a red trail in his thick beard next to the yellowish one which I could only guess to be snot. It was, quite frankly, disgusting.

He was quite a contrast from Lucian, the Romanian homeless man who “lives” on the sidewalk next to a bank on a side street very near Avenida Republica Argentina, which I take for most of my twenty-minute walk to school every day. We visited Lucian two weeks ago with ‘Solidarios,’ and I’ve stopped to talk to him a few times since then. He’s conscious of keeping himself and his area clean, because he says that the people like it better that way. He sees it as his way of earning the ‘regalos’ (gifts) that they’ve given him: his stocking cap, thick winter coat, shoes, sleeping bag, sleeping cushion, and blanket.

Last Monday on my way back from school for lunch he invited me to sit on his mat and chat for a while. I listened for about fifteen minutes as he told me a little bit about his life. His Spanish is limited, but he gets his message across. Honestly, it’s easier for me to understand him than most native Spaniards. Lucian came here in 2004 and lived in an apartment with a Ukrainian for a while. Even though they didn’t speak the same languages, they could still understand each other. For some reason (that I don’t know) things didn’t go well, and he ended up in the street. In 2005 his passport was stolen and he now only has a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy (which he showed me) in which his face is no longer discernible. The police (who frequently request identification from people—especially suspected illegal immigrants—in the street) tell him that for this reason it’s no good, but he has nothing else.

One of the people who have helped him is a lawyer who works nearby. This lawyer searched on the internet and found Lucian’s son’s telephone number, so the day before Lucian had called his son in Romania from a payphone on the corner.

“Ahora, yo soy abuelo,” (Now, I’m a grandpa) he told me with as tears of joy filled his eyes and ran down his face. Two years ago his son’s wife had a little girl, and Lucian just found out about it this week.

I nearly cried with him. “¿Cómo se llama?” But he hadn’t thought to ask the little girl’s name, so he didn’t know.

In the midst of his circumstances, Lucian is filled with hope. He told me that his daughter, who works in England, wants to come visit him next summer. There’s even a possibility that his son will come with his wife and daughter. The lawyer friend is going to try to help Lucian get his picture taken so that he can apply for a new passport.

But to my surprise, he told me that he doesn’t want to go back to Romania. Why? Well, since Romania joined the European Union it has had a lot of immigration from the East from poorer Asian countries, so now the wages have dropped because of a surplus of labor. That makes it difficult for the Romanians who were accustomed to earning more money. “Y también, la gente allí no le ayuda nada.” (“Plus, the people there don’t help you at all.”) Here in Sevilla there’s the Red Cross and the churches, including the one to which he goes everyday to get lunch and a sandwich for dinner.

“¿Pero no hay Iglesias también en Romania?” (“But aren’t there also churches in Romania?”) I asked.

Yes, there are churches, he said. But they’re orthodox churches which he says don’t help people like him. “El cura, con todo el dinero” (The priest, with all the money.”), he said, motioning as if to stuff a handful of cash into his pocket.

Ayy, pero este no es lo que Jesucristo quiere que haga su iglesia. Él quiere que ayudemos a los demás,” (“Ahh, but that’s not what Jesus Christ wants his church to do. He wants us to help others.”) I responded. And even as I said it, I wondered how much I could learn from those simple words. All the same, I was overjoyed that he identified the church here as a supplier of active compassion. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be” I thought as I walked home for lunch.

Back on San Jacinto with my tomato soup, I noticed a man watching us from behind the counter in the bar which we were standing in front of, and wondered what he was thinking. In the interest of making others think better of this homeless man, I contemplated stepping inside to ask for some napkins so that he could at least wipe the clumps out of his facial hair. But I resisted the urge, because I figured that telling him that he had to cleanup wasn’t a good representation of the unconditional love of Jesus. In fact, as I stood there watching him drink my tomato soup I wondered if Jesus looked anything like this man. He almost certainly looked more like him that he did like me.

“¿Cómo te llamas?” he asked me.

“Raquel” I told him, and found out in turn that his name is “Jixobo” (or at least something similar to that).

“¿Cuánto llevas aquí?” I asked. Twenty years, he told me, and all of them in Sevilla.

“Soy de Yugoslavia. ¿Y tú, de Francia?”

“No, de los Estados Unidos,” I answered, wishing that I didn’t have to admit it.

“Ahh. Tu eres Americana,” He smiled, and I grimaced slightly. “Hay muchas cosas buenas alli, ¿No?” (“There are a lot of good things there, right?”)

“Pues, hay algunas, si. Pero también hay algunas malas.” (“Well, there are some, yes. But there are also some bad things.”) But I could tell from his tomato-plastered smile that he wasn’t convinced.

It’s not that I hate my country; it’s just that I hate when I meet poor people who aspire to come to it. Sometimes I get the impression that they think that everyone in America is healthy, wealthy, happy, and wise. (But considering the image that’s portrayed by the film industry, I can’t really blame them for thinking so.) It perturbs me when people idolize that lifestyle and think that money can make you happy. Sure, it may be a necessary ingredient to survival in modern society. But beyond that, I’m convinced that almost nothing could be farther from the truth.

Earlier today while waiting in line for lunch at church Patricia (one of the worship leaders) and a man from Ecuador asked me how much I pay for university in the United States. They were fairly satisfied when I told them that it’s about $3,000 a year out of my pocket after scholarships and loans, but then they wanted to know how much it actually costs. I bit my tongue and waffled a bit before admitting that tuition is $25,000 per year. I could tell from their “Whew!” in response that I needed to explain that most public universities aren’t that expensive. I decided not to explain that that $25,000 doesn’t include the nearly $10,000 more for room, board, and miscellaneous fees.

On Friday night Nellie, José and Jorge joined me for a leisurely hour-long walk back to Triana from the coffee group in Inés’ house in the Macarena. José was talking about how much money he earned when he was in the U.S. (New York and Connecticut) from 2004-2006 working hanging drywall—$500 per week. In response Jorge whistled, and I thought about when I was younger and found out that my Dad Americans would consider that a piddly salary. They wanted to know how much money one could earn in the United States, and weren’t satisfied with my “It depends.” They asked for specifics, so I estimated as well as I could what an employee in McDonalds or a clothing store would earn.

But then as soon as I could, I changed the subject. It makes me uncomfortable when people associate me with the wealth that they don’t have. I don’t want to be rich; or perhaps I just don’t want to admit that I already am. I don’t know how to respond when someone tells me that his life goal is to come to the United States, because I was born with that citizenship by no merit of my own.

I don’t want to be an ambassador from America. I want to be an ambassador of Christ.

So that’s why I explained to Jixobo before I left that I had come back because of that song which was stuck in my head.

“Te daré, lo mejor de mi vida. Te daré, lo mejor cada día.”

“I was thinking that if I’m going to give my best to God every day, I need to start by doing it today.”

I’m not sure he understood what I meant, but he thanked me again anyway. I said goodbye and headed toward home, this time scarcely mindful of the burden on my back.

La Verdad

El lunes pasado cuando fui a ‘Solidarios’ hablamos con varias personas muy interesantes: un alemán que iba a estar aquí solo tres días más, un hombre que llevaba más que veinte años en la calle, un hombre de Sevilla que ha trabajado en los pozos de petróleo en Argentina veintiséis años, un hombre de 42 años que dio la culpa de la parada de tantos españoles a los inmigrantes, y un hombre incapacitado que andaba con muletas para que llamamos a un ambulancia para traerlo al hospital. Este hombre, José, nos dijo su filosofía de la vida: haz fiel a sí mismo y diga lo que tu corazón quiere, sin censurar ninguna cosa. Él preguntó a Guillermo, un español voluntario, que quería hacer con su vida y Guillermo le dijo que no sabía. Aunque no había pensado que Guillermo era cristiano, todavía me sorprendió y me hizo triste oír que él de verdad no tuvo ni idea de que quería. Cuando lo oí, me di cuenta de que tuve una oportunidad de hablar sobre Dios como lo que me da el propósito a la vida. De verdad no me había permitida a mi misma esperar tener esta oportunidad a causa de lo que yo había oído sobre la mentalidad de los sevillanos acerca de la religión.

Un poco tiempo después, explique a José que no es bastante solo ser fiel a sí mismo. Le dije que lo más que conozco de mi misma, reconozco que como que soy pecadora, voy a comportarme egoístamente si mi única meta es satisfacer lo que mi corazón quiere. “Lo importante es reconocer lo que Dios quiere para mi vida” le explique, y al que él inmediatamente respondió: “Dios no existe”. Antes de que yo pudiera contestar, Elena—una voluntaria española—cambió el tema por decir: “Cada uno tiene sus propias creencias”. Decidí no decir más, pero este me hizo pensar mucho.

Elena quería evitar cualquier conflicto por reconocer el derecho de cada uno pensar lo que quiera. Esta tolerancia es verdaderamente la meta del mundo laico moderno. Pero creo que esta tolerancia es aun peor que el ateísmo del José, porque a lo menos él reconoce que hay una realidad un la que la existencia de Dios tiene que ser verdad o falso: no puede ser los dos a la misma vez. El miércoles después del Encuentro hablé con Marilyn sobre este y ella me dijo que prefiere hablar sobre Dios con un ateísta que un cristiano indiferente, porque a lo menos el ateísta reconoce la importancia de la verdad y que si Dios exista, significaría algo de importancia profunda. Por eso me molesta muchísimo la percepción del cristianismo como algo solamente cultural y personal, porque esta desvalúe la verdad aun más que negarlo totalmente.

Sin embargo, creo que entiendo a lo menos un poco de la razón porque se piensa así. Estoy totalmente de acuerdo con Swindoll cuando dice: “Cualquier ministerio que exija una lealtad ciega y una obediencia indiscutible es sospechoso” (81). Creo que la falta de participación intelectual al parte de los cristianos en la articulación de las razones por su fe hace mucho daño a la percepción del cristianismo por los demás, especialmente los educados laicos de Europa. Cuando la iglesia institucional abusa su poder y se presenta incuestionable o los creyentes no saben porque creen lo que “creen”, hay plena razón cuestionar su autoridad, para los creyentes tanto como los ateístas. Este también puede contribuir a la mentalidad de Elena que lo que uno cree no importa, porque es más fácil dejar a cada uno a creer lo que quiera en vez de entrar en la tarea difícil de buscar la verdad y poder explicar sus razones por creerla a los que no estén de acuerdo. Pero la dificultad de este reta no sirve como excusa para evitarla; por eso, reconozco que necesito mejorar mi manera de comunicar con fluidez la fe que tengo adentro. Aunque todavía no sé exactamente como haré esto, sé que este necesita empezar con enfocarme en Dios, entender las razones para mi fe y (tal vez aun más importante) vivir mi relación con Jesucristo, pensar del significado de la verdad para la vida y el que no cree, y pedir a Dios la confianza decir lo que pienso sin vergüenza.

Monday, February 15, 2010

And now, to think in English.

What to say? When I left home almost seven weeks ago, my goal was to write something for this blog at least once a week. As you well know, my actions have fallen far short of those intentions. If you really care to know why, send me an email and I can send you my list of excuses—as soon as I get around to writing them down.

But here I am now, sitting on my bed with my comforter over my lap and my 3G sweatshirt overtop of the black sweater I got for Christmas—which, by the way, may very well be the best present my mother’s ever given me—over my “pirate” shirt (Ask my sister Anna to explain.), trying to keep warm in 45˚F Sevilla. (Before you chastise me for being a wimp, know that the buildings here in Spain have cement walls, which are designed to keep the heat outside during the sweltering summer months, accomplish the exact same purpose during the winter. The only heater in the house is a small lamp which hangs from a hook under the center of the table and warms up our legs under the table cloth. It’s only been used once in the nearly four weeks that I’ve been here, but I still put the tablecloth on my lap every time I sit down at the table (just in case), which is almost as good as wrapping a blanket around myself.)

I I set aside this Sunday afternoon to write, to reflect, because I haven’t done enough of that lately. It’s strange to think that I’ve been in Spain for as long as I was in Egypt, because my experiences have been so different in each place. In Egypt I was a guest for two weeks and a lone adventurer for one week, during which I saw artifacts and ruins from ancient history than I probably have seen in my whole life. In Spain I have been a guest turned (temporary) resident, a bit of an explorer, a language learner, and have once again returned to my familiar role as student. But even that is not as familiar as I think I expected.

A week or so ago I read an email from Taylor (one of the half-dozen or so that they still send me every day) entitled “Learn to Rest, Taylor” about program which Residence Life was sponsoring to focus on learning to honor the Sabbath. My first thought was “Taylor definitely needs to hear this. But it doesn’t apply to me since I’m not at Taylor this semester.” I envisioned my alter-ego back at Taylor, haggard from lack of sleep, finally sitting down to read her email at midnight after a day filled with classes, paper writing, homework, and probably chapel, exercise, (at least one) dinner date, ESL, and a concert or lecture thrown in for good measure.

“Thank God I’ve learned how to rest here in Spain,” I thought. But then I stopped myself. Have I really? I’ve been here for several weeks now, but part of me still doesn’t feel like I’ve fully landed. I’m so accustomed to losing myself (and many of my intentions) in my frenzied schedule that I fully expected it to rear its ugly head here in Sevilla. I stood there waiting for it for a while, armed and ready. But when it didn’t appear, I felt kind of lost. That’s just one more reference point which I left behind in the U.S.

For a while I tried to rouse it. I signed up for five classes (History, Art, Quijote and Grammar, all advanced, and a 1 credit Current Events class which will start in March) and decided to also audit a 1 credit ‘Acción Solidaria’ community service course, for which I go with a group of volunteers from 9 pm to midnight every Monday to visit the homeless and give them a café and some cookies. I agreed to lead a weekly prayer group of six girls who are studying here in the same program, Acento. I attend ‘Encuentro,’ the Wednesday night worship service organized by the school, went to the Girls’ Night, and went along with the group to play Bingo with the ‘ancianos’ in the Catholic retirement home. I registered for an ‘Intercambio’ conversation partner with whom I’m to meet every week to practice speaking English (for her) and Español (for me). I found a vibrant evangelical church filled (primarily) with Latino immigrants and joined a Friday night “small” (ten-fifteen people) group and a Saturday night young adult Bible study in addition to attending the two-three hour service on Sunday mornings. I took on a job teaching English for an hour and a half twice a week to Maria (9) and Fernando (6), whose parents are moving their family to Ireland in August for a year there so that their children will learn English. I went to another interview to teach English for an hour once a week to Lucia (14) and found out that her mother had also arranged for me to give weekly lessons to her friends Marta (16) and Angela (14). Add to that one-three hours of walking every day, and my schedule was beginning to take shape.

But when I started to see a semblance of my former frenzied self, I caught myself. My goal before I came here was to do less than I thought I could handle, because I know myself well enough to know that I think too highly of my ability to juggle my schedule and live a healthy life. So after a one-two day internal battle between my wiser self (represented by my pre-departure intentions) and my desire to experience as much as possible (represented by my penchant for signing up for things), I withdrew from the weekly ‘Flamenco’ (a very popular Sevillana dance) class, decided not to play piano for ‘Encuentro’s’ worship team, and turned down a job to teach English once a week to a fifth student. It sounds silly now, but it was really hard for me to do that. Living out my intentions seems to be easier said than done.

As soon as I had held myself accountable to my decision to do less, I wondered what I was going to do. So far I’ve been better at doing my homework, finding new ways to get to the same place by taking different streets, keeping up on the soap opera (‘Hotel Arrayan’) that my señora likes to watch every evening and trying to understand the television news anchors (who speak as if they were paid by the words-per-minute), finding free things to do in Sevilla (the expansive parks, Plaza de España, Universidad de Sevilla’s chamber choir performance, and the public library [Wi-Fi!] are in the lead so far) and spending time with my new friends at Iglesia Cristiana Manantial de Vida than I have at reading the three books that I brought with me, journaling daily, blogging weekly, planning the trips that I want to take this semester, or communicating with my friends and family back in the States. (Sorry about that.)

So that’s why I set aside this afternoon to write. Even though I enter into occasional periods of denial, I am a journaling addict—nearly twelve years in the making. When I don’t journal, the reflective part of me is missing. Actually, I’ve concluded that it isn’t exactly missing, but rather trailing a few days (at least) behind trying to collect and contain my experiences and thoughts so that I can recall them when I finally obey its incessant reminders and sit down to journal (or blog, in this case). I need to journal to create a mental map of my experiences so that I know where I’ve been and (hopefully) have a little better idea of where I’m going. Even if I don’t read it later, there’s something therapeutic and brain-stimulating about journaling.

That’s especially true of my experience here, because I’m living, reading, writing, communicating, journaling, praying, and thinking almost exclusively in Spanish. (If that sentence made you smile, it’s because you know me well enough to know that the experience of living in Spanish is so wonderful that at times I am overcome with a joy that starts deep within and overflows into a smile that I can’t hide—even though in the interest of cultural sensitivity, while walking the streets I generally adopt the smile-less face of the Spaniards.) But as much as I love it, it’s difficult. While I haven’t gone to bed with the headache that I remember having by the end of a day of translating while in Mexico with YLP in 2006, at times it is still very apparent to me that Spanish is not my native tongue.

Sometimes I feel like I’m not all here, because I lack the vocabulary to think about the things that usually occupy my mind when I walk places on my own. I got excited last week when I found the Metaphysics books in the Philosophy section at the public library, but as soon as I did so I laughed at myself. That subject matter was difficult enough for me last semester in English. As if I could understand discussions about the nature of “being” in Spanish!

The first Saturday that I was here we went on a tour of some of the more famous places within walking distance of our school. As we did so, I talked to our guide Enrique, who is studying business at the University. He told me that most Spaniards are very career-oriented when selecting their field of study (The concept of a “liberal arts” education doesn’t exist here, and law is the most popular ‘carrera’), which is understandable considering that the unemployment rate is already nearly 19% and the demographic of young college graduates is especially suffering. So when he found out that I’m studying Philosophy he (naturally) asked me why. “Oh dear,” I thought. That question is difficult enough for me to answer in English. I managed to say something about how I enjoy thinking, asking questions and exploring issues of ultimate significance, which many people never even consider. However, I’m confident that it sounded even less eloquent in Spanish as we walked the streets of our tour. Experiences like that make times like this (i.e., thinking in English) feel a bit like I’m a submarine coming up for some much needed fresh air with which my brain can function at full capacity.

On that tour we walked past the third largest (and oldest) Gothic Catedrál in Europe with its famous bell tower the ‘Giralda’ (which was constructed as the minaret of an expansive mosque by the Almohades in 1198), the twelfth century defensive ‘Torre de Oro’ alongside the Guadalquivir river, the Alcázar (also from the twelfth century, and which still serves as a residence for the royal family when they’re in town—as they were when we tried to visit it this past Friday), the Archive of the Indies (a museum which houses correspondence between Christopher Columbus and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella), the Plaza de España (a stunning architectural gem [seriously—do a Google Image search to see it for yourself] constructed for the 1929 Ibero-American World Expo, along with many attractive buildings which represent each of the countries of Latin America), the Jewish quarters, and numerous expansive gardens. Since I walk past many of those places several times a week since then, the initial ‘wow’ affect has worn off a bit and they have become landmarks rather than tour destinations. But it’s still cool that I get to live here surrounded by so much beautiful, historic architecture.

But enough rambling. I’m not sure I’ve even said anything of significance yet. (I think my writing style is better suited for 19th century prose than for a blog.) So what have I experienced in the last three weeks? (Whew. Why do I ask myself such difficult questions?) Well, some of it was like reliving my first semester of college. Except this time instead of adjusting to life in a dorm, learning in a classroom, eating (almost) whenever and whatever I wanted, and being “a part of something,” I’ve adjusted to living in a house, having comparatively little homework, eating on a (very different) schedule, and at times feeling very much alone.

My roommate Nicole (from Cornerstone University) and I live with Rosa (54) and her son Juan (26) in an apartment which consists of a kitchen, dining/living room, bathroom, and three bedrooms. Rosa’s nephew José Maria recently got a job in Sevilla and moved here from Cadiz, so he stays here with us some of the time while he’s looking for an apartment. Her daughter (also Rosa, 32) lives a ‘pueblo’ a short distance outside of the city with her husband José (a police officer), son Samuel (pronounced “SamuEHL”—3 ½), and daughter Nuria (nearly 4 months). They visit about once a week, but we aren’t always here when they visit.

Rosa provides us with three meals a day. Breakfast (8:00 am, later on the weekends) is the same every day: café con leche (or mint tea, in my case) and toast. I usually eat one-two pieces of an ‘andaluza’ (think miniature loaf of French bread) with peach marmalade or olive oil. (If we’re not going to be home for a meal, Rosa packs us a ‘bocadillo,’ which is a loaf of that same bread with ham or a few slices of salami.) I’ve taken to packing a piece of bread and a Clementine to eat during my mid-morning break at 11:00 am to appease my stomach and convince it that it can last until our 3:00 pm lunch after school. Sometimes I do the same in the afternoons at about 6:00 pm, to tide myself over until dinner at 9:30 pm. I’m slowly getting accustomed to the meal times, but it’s still a bit strange to me to go through the first seven hours of the day on a few pieces of toast and eat a large meal two hours before going to bed. Let’s just say that I have had ample experience with being hungry, which I’ve tried to use as a personal illustration of what it means to hunger after God.

I’m keeping a list of the dishes that Rosa serves us, because there’s no other way that I’d remember what they’re called. And in case you’re wondering, it’s not at all like Mexican food; we have a lot of soups, lentils, garbanzo beans, pasta, potatoes, green beans, fish, some chicken, tortillas (which are like omelets and called “Francesa” when they’re plain and “Española” when they’re made with potatoes), a basket of bread at every meal (which I love), and lots of fried foods (ham, cheese, and many different types of fish) on the side. One of the girls in Acento told us that her señora was concerned when she didn’t eat very much of the fried food. “Don’t worry,” she told her, “You won’t get fat. I fry everything in olive oil.” That they do. But all the same, my roommate and I have exchanged many knowing glances and smirks while sitting on our beds doing homework and listening to Rosa prepare “algo frito” for dinner.

As for feeling alone. . . Since one of my primary goals for this semester is to learn to Spanish well enough to “live” in it, I determined before I arrived that I would only speak English when absolutely necessary. I made that decision in part because I had heard from previous participants that many students speak English among themselves as well as in the classrooms (even though we all sign a contract that we will only speak Spanish in the school). I figure that if I don’t know how to say something in Spanish, I should at least try so that I can learn to express myself more fully in the language. It can be taxing (cf. my philosophy experience above), but I’m generally up for the challenge.

The unanticipated challenge has turned out to be getting to know students within Acento. Since I only speak Spanish, I have a difficult communicating with those who are unwilling to do so. I did not foresee how difficult it would be to get to know less-than-advanced students. When one has to work to form sentences, the small talk that’s a natural part of getting to know someone is limited, to say the least. I’ve had many bilingual conversations (me speaking Spanish with a student who answers in English), but they can be quite frustrating. I feel socially awkward for sticking to my principles, and the other person usually either switches to Spanish or moves onto another conversation.

In addition, it’s been somewhat difficult to find a place where I “belong” here. It’s not culturally acceptable to have friends over to your house; everyone goes out to cafés, bars, ‘discotecas,’ or just walks around the city. My blisters have turned to calluses as evidence that I’ve mastered the art of walking through the city. But since I’m abiding by the Life Together Covenant (LTC), I avoid the drinking crowd (not that it interests me in the first place). And since I hate to spend money on unnecessary things, I avoid cafés unless I need Wi-Fi on the weekend. At times trying to live by my principles of Español, the LTC, and parsimony creates more pressure than I care to bear and I wonder if I’ll be forced to choose between friendships and principles.

But then another weekend arrives, and I thank God profusely for my church here.

The first week that we were here I brought home the list of Protestant churches in Sevilla which the from the back of Acento’s handbook with the intention of figuring out how to get to a church in ‘Los Pajaritos,’ a poor area in East Sevilla. My señora discouraged us from going to a church so far away and in a far-less-than-well-to-do neighborhood, so we took her advice and her directions to another evangelical church. The next morning we—my roommate and Megan, Chelsea, Emily, & Angela, four other girls who live nearby—set off for this church an hour before it started. We should have arrived at least 20 minutes early, but somehow we ended up walking parallel to the river when I thought we were headed toward it and arrived 45 minutes late. When we finally found the street and I heard singing wafting through the doorway I was convinced that there could be no sweeter sound in the entire world.

We waited in the patio until they finished singing, and then were ushered to some chairs which they added in front in the space where the musicians had been. We felt like quite the spectacle sitting up front of the congregation of 150 or so dark heads, especially when the pastor publicly welcomed us from the pulpit. But the greeting was sincere, the atmosphere affectionate, and the message challenging. The congregation is almost all immigrants from Central and South America who have found in each other the family, friends, and community which they left behind in their home countries. They epitomize the warm Latino culture, lively and passionate worship of Jesucristo, generosity, and candid honesty which I usually associated with Spanish. Nellie (32, from Honduras) introduced herself and invited us to their Friday night ‘Grupo de Café,’ which I have attended since. Adriana (34, from Argentina) asked us to visit the English class which she teaches every Tuesday and Thursday to give her students some conversation practice with native speakers. Since then I’ve gotten to know Jorge (Argentina), José (Sevilla), Juan Francisco (Ecuador), Denny and Veronica (Dominican Republic), Juan (Bolivia) and his girlfriend Conny (Germany), Lupe and Carmen (sisters from Bolivia), and many others.

Spending time with them has given me a new, living and vibrant perspective on what the body of Christ looks like. I love it that I could walk into this church and instantly have the most important thing in common with these people whom I had never before met. I hadn’t anticipated how refreshing it would be to be around Christians, especially Christians who are sincerely passionate about seeking Jesus. It’s beautiful.

Sevilla is undoubtedly the most secular environment that I have ever lived in. The people certainly have a Catholic heritage, but for the vast majority of them it means nothing more than a cultural reference point and an annual tradition of celebrating Semana Santa (Holy Week) in an illustrious way. Almost all of the streets and plazas of Triana (the neighborhood in which I live) are named for Virgins, and beautiful cathedrals are a common sight. But a cultural heritage in no way constitutes a personal relationship with the Divine. It has made me wonder, as I did in Egypt, “What does God want?” It’s more than constructing beautiful buildings, naming children after holy people, giving money and time to good causes, showing up for a weekly service, and praying when it looks good and we remember to do so.

“What does God want?”

Our hearts.

And then I ask myself, “Have I given him mine?”

Well yes, of course. I “prayed the prayer” when I was five, rededicated my life to Jesus when I was twelve, and have sought to grow closer to him ever since.

But there´s more to it than that. I´m learning from them what it means to worship sincerely, to live a life focused on Jesus. I´m convinced it´s not a coincidence that such a vibrant church is thriving here in such a secular environment. Since it´s neither normal nor easy to live as a Christian here, those who do actually do. There´s something about living in as a minority which makes true Christians cling to it even more fiercely. And that´s what I´m learning to do.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Nile Cruise Companions

Brian and Becca got married last September and were on the Nile cruise as part of their honeymoon trip through Egypt. He’s a twenty-six year old military brat who majored in computer engineering and is now in the army, stationed on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula at an international base. He liked to tell stories about the Italians (whom he said nobody liked) and the Hungarians (who reportedly drink a lot but make excellent food). He had broken his pinky finger two weeks earlier when he fell while climbing Mt. Sinai, and enjoyed explaining how it would have to be re-broken so that it would heal properly. She’s a twenty-two year-old who recently transferred to Kansas State on a softball scholarship, where she’s majoring in English Education so that she’ll be able to find a job wherever he happens to be stationed. They’re avid fans of several video games and TV series which I’ve never seen and of which I can’t remember the names, love Egyptian history, spent nearly $700 on a hand-woven tapestry with a scene of the Egyptian landscape, thoroughly enjoyed our “gallabea” party (complete with “traditional” Egyptian costumes and food) onboard the cruise ship, and are staunch conservatives who think that Obama’s health care plan is communism.

Eleven years ago, Brett left his home in Sydney, Australia to spend a year in British Columbia, Canada. He enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to travel 6-8 weeks (half in July and half in January) every year since then. And considering that he owns a scaffolding company, several surfing schools, and at least three retail clothing stores, he can afford to do so. I was a bit surprised when he referred to our four-day/three-night Nile Cruise as a cheap way to travel, and a bit more so when I learned that he had paid $800 for it (whereas thanks to the Rohlands’ travel agent friend, I paid $300). Nevertheless, he was the most unassuming thirty-two year old Australian multi-millionaire who I’ve met. Before traveling to Egypt he had spent a few weeks with friends in the U.S. and Dubai, and on his way home he planned to stop by Beirut, Lebanon (since he does a lot of business with the Lebanese and has a friend who lives there). Of everywhere he’s traveled, he said that his favorite countries are Cuba, the Czech Republic, and “Asia” (which doesn’t exactly count as a country, but perhaps because he couldn’t pick one country in particular). He was quite an amiable jokester, had a bit of a foul mouth, complained extensively about the illegal immigration to Australia from Indonesia, and likes Australia’s socialist health care and housing programs in spite of the tax rate at 30% for who earn up to $90,000—and 50% for those who earn more—and the fact that he has neighbors who live for free on Sydney harbor while he pays $800/week for his apartment with the same view. He said that he preferred to talk to interesting people rather than rich ones, loves to cook, and was most commonly dressed in surfing shorts and t-shirts (during the Egyptian winter) from his retail clothing line stores with his canon camera hanging from the strap around his neck.

Richard and Connie have lived in Seattle for the last thirty-five or so years since they graduated from college in Minnesota. Two of their sons have since moved to Los Angeles, but the other still lives in Seattle (which Connie loves because she gets to see her one-year old grandson every week). They have done a fair amount of international traveling, but had never been to Egypt before. Since Connie’s a travel agent some of those were sponsored (such as her trip to China in the 1980s), but most have been independent. Connie said that my note taking during tours and eagerness to absorb all of the experience reminded her of herself on her first trip to Europe, during which she took notes during tours of art museums (which were especially interesting to her since she went on to earn a master’s in Art History). They were one of those couples with whom conversation comes naturally and pleasantly because they balanced talking about themselves with asking me about my experiences. Shortly after we met, Connie told me that I should go to Indonesia, because I’m the kind of person who would like it there. Perhaps next summer when I’m in South Korea I should travel there to see if she’s right. The Monday after our cruise—which ended on Saturday in Aswan—I walked around a corner in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and discovered them leaning over a glass case examining some artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb as they listened to the narration of their tour guide, Khalid. They invited me to join them for the rest of their tour, which took us through the exhibits of intricate jewelry, richly carved wooden furniture, life-like statues, dazzlingly beautiful sarcophagi, and to the nested burial boxes which were all retrieved from King Tut’s tomb in 1922. We spent an hour together after the official tour, wandering through the hall lined with 4,000 year-old ornately decorated caskets of once-important but now-forgotten people, and talking about how difficult it was to grasp what we were seeing, much less communicate it to those back home. As inadequate as it was, I had to agree with Richard’s conclusion that it was difficult to say more than that Egypt is really old, had a really powerful civilization, was really rich and left behind a lot of amazing stuff.

Bowan is an Egyptian in his thirties who grew up in Riyadh, where his dad still works as an Egyptian diplomat to the Saudi Arabian government. He returned to Egypt to complete his degree in aeronautical engineering at the University of Alexandria and moved to Los Angeles two years ago, where he works in an aeronautics testing facility. While there he met Holly, the Chinese-American woman to whom he is now married. This was her first time to Egypt, to visit his family and see the country. He was very amiable and almost always chuckling, most commonly at her antics or questions about something (very obvious) which she misunderstood during the tour. She liked to call him “habibi” (“my dear one” in Arabic) and enjoyed posing for pictures with ancient monuments. He is a Muslim, and she is “becoming” one (although she doesn’t believe in life after death). Bowan—or Mino, as everyone called him—told me that he would like to move back to Egypt someday if there are ever jobs available in aeronautical engineering, but I would be surprised if Holly fared well in the conservative Arab culture. They left our tour early on Saturday morning so that she could catch her flight to China for the week (where she planned to do some business and then visit her family) and he could fly to Saudi Arabia to visit his father for a while before returning to Alexandria, which he told me was the best city in Egypt.

Safa grew up as one of six children of a Presbyterian pastor in a small town in central Egypt. He graduated second in his class from the engineering school which he attended in Cairo, but didn’t receive the post-graduate scholarship which that achievement merited, because he was a Christian. When Safa was twenty-two, his brother learned of a threat on his life because of his faith and fled to the United States (via Lebanon, since it was easier to get political asylum from there). Safa and his new wife Hoda (who is from Alexandria), and the rest of their family—except for one sister who is married to a Coptic Christian—followed them to Los Angeles shortly thereafter. He was visiting Egypt with his son Peter, a junior studying Psychology at Biola, a Christian university in southern California. Within minutes of meeting them I found out that Peter attends the church at which Erik Thoennes—renowned at Taylor for his excellent preaching in chapel during the Fall 2008 semester—is an elder and periodically preaches.
Since Safa and Peter were the first of the Christians who I met while traveling on my own, I didn’t anticipate how refreshing it would be to spend time with them. The family of God is a remarkable thing: within minutes of meeting them I knew that I could trust them, because even though I knew next to nothing about them, I knew that we had the most important thing in common. Plus, it was great to travel with Egyptians who could speak Arabic. We spent an afternoon in Aswan together, and then reunited in Cairo the following Tuesday to visit Coptic Cairo´s “Hanging Church” (from the fourth century), the 65-story tall Cairo Tower, and the markets of Khan al-Khalili. Safa introduced me to the manager of the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo, so that the next time my parents visit Cairo, they´ll have a good place to stay.

Monday, February 1, 2010


As promised, here is the sampling of mini-biographies of people who I met in Alexandria, Egypt. The Nile Cruise and Cairo editions are yet to come, and after that I´ll finally tell you a bit about Sevilla, Spain, where I´ve been since January 20.

I met Constance, an Irish-American Christian with much more spunk than one would expect from an eighty-one year old woman—even with her red hair—at the American Women’s Association’s weekly Monday morning coffee meeting at the nearly abandoned Portuguese club in Alexandria. She grew up in Texas and met her husband Alfie, an Egyptian, while she was doing postgraduate studies in nursing at college in California. After they married they moved to Prince Edward Island where they purchased a resort hotel which they operated for decades. She taught nursing for a while at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, but now spends most of her time in Alexandria. Her husband was back in Canada on business while I was there, but she was perfectly at home in the city by herself. In fact, when I saw her a few days later at the Bible study which Gail led and she adamantly stated that she would never “submit” to her husband, I nearly got the impression that she preferred it that he was gone for a few weeks.

Gloria, an African-American Christian, moved into a nursing home near her home in southern California when she was eighty years old and was soon bored out of her mind. She had heard the same stories from the other residents at least one too many times when her daughter Catherine came back from the International American school (at which she is the principal and teaches Social Studies, History, English, and probably something else that I’m forgetting) in Alexandria to visit. After hearing Catherine talk to some of the other residents about the low cost of living and myriad of activities and opportunities in Alexandria, Gloria decided that she would rather live in Egypt than the nursing home. Within a month she had packed belongings and moved to Alexandria, where she has lived in an apartment for the past five years. She lives fairly independently with the assistance of a housekeeper, who prepared a scrumptious spread of Egyptian desserts and tea for the women’s Bible study which I went to at her house, and a driver, who brings her at least one social event every day of the week. When asked if she was concerned about the lower quality of health care available in Alexandria as compared to California, she said that she was satisfied with the life she had been given and was ready to die whenever her time came.

I met Gina, a Muslim woman in her thirties who is originally from California but now lives in Alexandria with her Egyptian husband, at another social meeting of American women in Alexandria. She questioned Lizzy and me about the best way to prepare her children for the SAT, the standardized test which they will need to take for entrance to an American university. She’s hoping that her son, who plays basketball every evening from 7 pm until midnight, will one day play in the NBA, or at least earn a basketball scholarship to college in America. But first he has to earn a spot on the A team. She’s concerned because her daughter is no longer as interested in becoming a cardiologist as she is in being a wife and a mother, like her mom. I appreciated her concern for her children’s welfare, but sympathized with her a little less when I realized that her children are only 14 and 13.

Charlene grew up Brooklyn, NY and taught English in France and Saudi Arabia before moving to Alexandria seventeen years ago. For the past two years she has taught elementary school students at Schutz American School (which Lizzy attended). During the two days that I observed in her ESL classroom she worked with a compliant sixth grade Palestinian boy, a tremendously defiant fourth grade Turkish girl, a giggly group of third graders (two Egyptians and one Palestinian), and a comical third grade Italian boy who knew essentially no English when he arrived at the school last August. Charlene told me about her frustrations with living as in a country in which she receives “Welcome to Egypt!” greetings as she walks the streets, even though she’s lived in Egypt for nearly twenty years and speaks Arabic fluently. She complained about the closed nature of the culture, the prevalence of corruption, and the increase of fundamentalist Islam. Her goal is to move back to the U.S. with her husband (an Egyptian) and their four school-age children within a few years, ideally somewhere she can teach English and her husband can either continue practicing law or teach Arabic. Nevertheless, she offered the give me advice on where to go and what to look for should I decide to teach English in the Middle East after I graduate.