Buen Camino, the good way

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(Early morning view from O’Cebreiro, photo cred Josh Walker)

You might be asking yourself what’s the big deal about a hike?

If you don’t know much or anything about El Camino de Santiago, then I get it.  You would wonder why it’s a thing.  You could call it many things: a journey, an adventure, an experience, a pilgrimage, a walk. But you can’t know something simply by knowing what it’s called. You have to participate in it.

(Between O’Cebreiro and Tricastela- photo cred Josh Walker)

I knew the Camino was an ancient network of hiking paths, diverging throughout the northern part of Spain, until all converge at the shrine of St. James in Santiago. What I didn’t know was the contour of those paths, the character of the towns and villages we would pass through or the subtle beauty I would see. I didn’t know the culture or ethos of the participants, the physical challenge it would present, or the lessons I would take away.  These things must be obtained throughout the journey. You can’t read about them before hand and know what they’re about.

So really, I had no idea what to expect. I just knew I was going on a really long hike. And that some people do it for spiritual reasons.

My own objective was to simply enjoy being outdoors, and carve out solitude for me and God. In spending six months learning a language, dwelling in a city, moving and setting up house in a new town, I felt an urge for extended tranquility in wide-open spaces.

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The beauty of northern Spain alone (Galicia) should draw you to the Camino.  Over mountains, through forests, past tiny almost ghost-like villages, around meadows and pastures, through city streets, and across bridges, we trekked over every sort of landscape you would expect.  The beauty is in the modesty and simplicity of an older, more natural way of life. It also vaguely reminded me of the Appalachian region in the U.S., bringing me closer to familiarity and home.

The views were unassuming, yet stunning.  A quaint old village church, antique farm equipment resting alongside the road, meadows of wildflowers, wild hydrangeas burgeoning from cracks in stone. Sheep, horses, and goats resting in their pastures. Panoramas from grassy balds. Celtic ruins lying hidden on the mountain top. Some blend of rock, soil, grass, wood, stone or concrete always beneath my feet.

I savored beauty while I could. I’m storing up those views, breezes, and smells to remind me of the gifts God lavishes on us through His creation.

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(What appeared to be a nearly abandoned village, claiming only a handful of residents)

I wasn’t prepared for the physical challenge. I did virtually no training. I carried a large back-pack most days, and my feet and knees weren’t used to the uneven, rugged, sometimes rocky terrain.  I wasn’t prepared for the steep inclines and let’s face it, I can’t remember the last time I elected to be on my feet for more than 8 hours on any given day. But some of the reward comes through the challenge. In total, I walked about 115 km (100 km is needed to obtain the official pilgrim’s credential) or 70ish miles in 8 days. I had a few blisters, achy feet, and sore knees to prove it.

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The Spirit of the Camino is very much in those who participate. The general attitude is that even though we may not know each other, we know what each other is going through.  There is comradry and solidarity in this.  People believe in leaving the trails and establishments along the way in better shape than they were found. There’s a spirit of helpfulness, kindness, and patience. People are willing to stop and ask if you need help with your bag, a new bandage, or some fresh water.  Local Spaniards sit outside their local bar, their pastime to look out for lost hikers. People set up stands with free food and drink to take something if you need it. Though the nationalities and languages are vast, the spirit is the same.

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(View of a lake at Portomarin, and a lovely hiker from Greenland, first person I’ve ever met from Greenland)

As I think about what revelations or “ah-ha” moments to share, I’m coming up short. We went with the intention of simply trying to be light and share our faith when we had an opportunity.  I had a few exchanges with people, but the joy for me was not in sharing, but in taking part.  As a missionary living abroad, daily life is just a little bit harder than it would be in my home culture. Here, I am more in danger of being emptied, drained, or burnt out because it requires much change, adaptation, energy, and lingual capacity just to live here. It’s where I am supposed to be, and I have no regrets.   This journey for me wasn’t about receiving some spiritual revelation, or having some great testimony to share (though I wish that were the case).  This time was meant to refuel and refill me in such a way that I could come back to where God has planted me and continue on.

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(Directly above, on top of a mountain at an old Celtic ruins site)

Overall reflections.

The days were long, but the journey was short.

The joy is in the journey, not the destination. Reaching Santiago was actually anti-climactic. No banners, no crowds cheering, no welcome sign, just a bunch of tired, limping hikers wandering aimlessly, searching for a nondescript building offering the official stamp of completion.

The reward of a hard climb was usually tangible: a stunning view I could capture with my camera, a hilltop village where I could remove my pack and untie my shoes, or a cafe offering freshly squeezed orange juice and baked empanadas.

Some days I barreled through just to get to the next destination. I couldn’t be bothered to stop.  Other days I was more relaxed and allowed myself time to stop, take a break, and savor what was around me.

There was always an option to take a taxi to the next point, and a few times I took advantage of this.  There were also bag services, and for 3 euros you could send your pack ahead of you to your next destination.  These options felt a little like “cheats” for me, but I quickly got over this.  Forget mileage for mileage sake, I wanted to enjoy this experience (and avoid injury). If I was killing it each day, I could be robbing myself of joy found in a slower pace.

The quiet places. An empty cathedral, a rusty bench in a town plaza, a flat stone in the middle of a wood, a grassy embankment in the shade; there sometimes I prayed, there sometimes I sat in quiet, there sometimes I nursed and massaged my wounds. I touched the path with my feet, sometimes my whole body.  I am blessed by these quiet moments of unity with a centuries old road, where many others have gone before me.

The way is hallowed not because of the countless pilgrims and saints who have consecrated its path.  It is hallowed because it is earth, created by God, as its trekkers are made by Him and in His image. It is hallowed because through the journey, you find just a little more of what you’re made of.  And if you have eyes to see and ears to hear you may just discover this likeness.

While you’re on about wandering and seeking, you may stumble upon the Way Himself.

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(People pay homage to the cross in their own way, leaving items behind)

OUR ITINERARY & SOME FACTS (in case you’re interested in such things)

  • June 20- Madrid to Piedrafita by bus; Piedrafita to O’Cebreiro on foot: 3,6 km or 2,2 miles; time it took- 2+ hours
  • June 21- O’Cebreiro to Tricastela: 21 km or 13.5 miles; time it took- 8+ hrs
  • June 22- Tricastela to Sarria: between 21-24 km or 13.5-15 miles (*I took a taxi because I didn’t sleep at all the night before, and was feeling a bit under the weather with, ahem, female issues*)
  • June 23- Sarria to Portomarin: 23 km or 14+ miles; time it took- 9ish hours
  • June 24- Portomarin to Palas de Rei: 22-23 km or 13.5-14 miles; time it took for me- 5ish hours (* I stopped at 13 km/or 8 miles, and taxied the remainder because I was in some serious pain from the day before)
  • June 25- Palas de Rei: Rest Day
  • June 26- Palas de Rei to Arzua: 29 km or 18 miles; time it took for me 5.5-6 hours (*I stopped at 16 km/10 miles and taxied the remainder*)
  • June 27- Arzua to Amenal: 23 km or 14 miles; time it took- 8ish hours
  • June 28- Amenal to Santiago: 16.5 km or 10 miles; time it took- 9ish hours
  • June 29- Rest Day in Santiago: 2 km or so, 1.2 miles in and around the city
  • June 30- Left Santiago, flew to Madrid, Madrid to home

Total km walked: 115    Total miles walked: 72   Total days on the trail: 8   Total hours on the trail: 50ish    Total injuries: 0 

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(Sunset at O’Cebreiro, a mountain top village, and my favorite spot on all the hike)

Twenty Things: Spain

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During the past 6 years, I’ve lived in Asia, Africa, Europe and the U.S. I’ve worked as an English teacher. I’ve worked for a faith-based NGO, and simultaneously as a general studies teacher. I’ve worked as a missionary. My years abroad have not only stretched me professionally, culturally, and spiritually; they have also had a profound impact on my perception of home.

For those of us who travel much, or live abroad, our sense of home is key to our identity.  If we always see home as “back there,” then we will never truly be able to adapt here, to call this home. We will always be foreigners in a strange land. And it will always wear on us.  

But if we can find home here, or better yet, choose to make our home here, then we have much to gain by staying, and a much better chance of lasting.

As I went about daily life, made new observations or had new insights in each of my homes abroad, I compiled a list of twenty things.  Twenty things I loved, and twenty things I was “getting used to.” These lists helped me to appreciate the uniqueness of what I had found in each place, while at the same time giving me a space to vent about the things that were hard.

There will always be things about a “home” that are incredible, and always things that are hard.  The same is true even in our passport countries (joys of home-ownership, anyone?) Justin likes to remind me that I’m usually nostalgic when I talk about the places I used to live. I reminisce about the good things I had, the once-in-a-lifetime-experiences, when the reality was, as I was living in the thick of it, I complained or vented about the hard stuff…a lot.

It’s always about perspective. As Tsh Oxenreider puts it in her book Notes from a Blue Bike: living well doesn’t mean not doing hard things.

These lists have proven cathartic, a form of therapy, a simple method to orient myself to the tangible and quantifiable things I both love and lack in a new culture.

Perhaps too, through this routine, I’ve unearthed an ability to cope with just about anything, given the right perspective.

So without further ado, here are:

Twenty things I love:

  1. Doing life & ministry here with my husband
  2. Fresh. Baked. Bread.
  3. Jamón ibérico
  4. The Spanish language (actually 4 official languages recognized here)
  5. Learning Castilian Spanish
  6. They have IKEA
  7. PT is mostly reliable and affordable
  8. There’s, like, castles here and stuff
  9. Always stunning architecture to marvel at
  10. The incredible history (and a crazy number of UNESCO world heritage sites)
  11. Wine. It’s cheaper than every other beverage.
  12. A four-season climate
  13. Spanish olive oil
  14. Balconies & terraces full of flowers
  15. Drying my clothes in the fresh air and sun
  16. It’s totally normal to eat pastries EVERYDAY and not be considered a glutton
  17. Queso oveja (sheep cheese)
  18. The neighborhood bar or cafe is the center of life
  19. Walking everywhere for everything is normal
  20. How international this place is, and how many languages I hear on any given day

Twenty things I’m getting used to:

  1. Most everything shuts down during the afternoon for “siesta”
  2. The late-night culture
  3. The buzz of youthful “fiestas” in the cities
  4. Spanish breakfast portions (a crusty piece of bread with jam or tomato puree is NOT breakfast)
  5. Customer service, or lack thereof
  6. Exorbitant International postal fees
  7. Not relying on a car to get around
  8. The lack of Tex-Mex restaurants
  9. A culture that shrugs off work easily
  10. Empty cathedrals
  11. High fuel prices
  12. The coffee (just not a fan of café solo or café con leche)
  13. Still struggling with the language barrier
  14. Feeling self-conscious (the women here are soooooooo pretty)
  15. Missing family & friends
  16. Missing important milestones with my nieces and nephew
  17. A culture that at best seems cavalier about matters of faith
  18. All the blockbuster movies are dubbed over in Spanish (just, nope)
  19. Air conditioners, dishwashers, and dryers are NOT the norm
  20. Corruption at every level of government (only because it’s western Europe, I didn’t expect it to be this bad)

Justin would like to point out that it took me twice as long to come up with a list of 20 things I’m getting used to.

We’ll call that growth.

(Speaking of growth, check out these crazy trees that grow into and out of each other)

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Here’s my previous post from Twenty Things: Japan

 

Here’s my previous post from Twenty Things: Africa

 

This is Spain

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A view of the old roman bridge from the river on my walk 

Friday we went to pick up bank cards. Justin asked for our cards to be sent to the bank closest to us, but he received a text from the bank saying the cards had been sent to a branch outside of town.  It’s not a big deal to go outside of town if you have a car.  But when you’re relying on public transportation, that changes your strategy.  So we got up early, got a taxi and rode the 20 or so minutes outside of town to the address provided. Only, there was nothing there.  Justin realized the address we received from the bank was incorrect.  They made an error and we needed the main office. Which is where we wanted our cards sent in the first place.  Because that’s the office closest to us (a 5 minute walk from our apartment).  So, we explained this to the taxi driver, said sorry for the mix-up, and 15 euros later, were right back where we started. The best part was when the taxi driver said, “No te preocupes, por esto es Espana.” Or “Don’t worry about it, this is Spain.

This is Spain. Ha!

 

We learn new things about this place every day. Some stuff is fascinating, and other things frustrate the heck out of us. Some days we say “wow, how amazing is that!” and other days say “what?!? why?”

This is living outside your passport country. Some days you think ‘wow I’m so lucky to live in this place,’ and other days you’re like ‘why did I come here again?’  It’s helpful to know that these bipolar feelings are NORMAL and all part of the ebb and flow of cross-cultural assimilation. We have been living in Spain 4 months now, not naive to think we’re done making adjustments, but overall, settling into our life here.

You may wonder what living in Spain, or any other country for that matter, looks like for two Americans? In short, it’s creating a healthy blend of new culture stuff while attempting to keep a few comforts from your home culture. In my experience, you need both.

Some things that are still “new” to us. Meal times! The Spanish eat a very lite breakfast, a lite snack a couple hours later, followed by their main meal at 2 or 3. “Cenar” or dinner isn’t until after 9. While we’ve been following this pattern, I think my body is still adjusting.  I get up each day around 7:30, have my coffee and breakfast, do some reading & studying, then get ready for the day.  We are at language school from 10-2, with a short break in the middle.  We get home around 2:30 and by the time our meal is prepared, it’s 3 o’clock. I’ve gotten better at preparing snacks to take, but some days I still forget.  It’s hard not be starving by the time we eat again at 3! And there have to be others like me, where after you eat a large meal, you feel tired or lethargic. I’ve been trying to force myself to walk after our meal, and not lay down, which is what the Spanish do. Siesta!

As for the food, I’d say we’ve done well at trying new things.  We like Spanish food, as the fare is simple, hearty, and prepared with quality ingredients. They love fresh fish and pork. Oh the pork.  Those black-hoofed, acorn-fed, black Iberian pigs are the heart and soul of Spanish cuisine. It’s quite a tasty treat, and we enjoy sandwiches, varieties of cheeses and meats, and traditional dishes like paella, cocido madrileño  and tapas. But at times, it’s important to make our comfort foods.  I make tacos about once a week because Justin LOVES him some tacos. I make pancakes on Saturday mornings, because breakfast foods are the bomb. And when I need a little pick-me-up I enjoy baking my favorite batch of cookies or scones.

From L-R: Tapas- small portions of appetizer type foods, Cocido Madrileno- stew of chickpeas, chorizo, & vegetables, Paella- saffron rice with shellfish & veggies, and Iberian ham. 

We love our walk-able city. We literally walk everywhere, there’s no need to take a bus. it takes 30 minutes round trip to the city center for language classes, and I’ll try to get in at least another mile or two later in the day. The farthest I have to walk for a store is 20 minutes. The hypermarket is like Walmart, only a European version- so not as sketchy, and I can find everything I need in one place. Although, I’m walking with items on the way back, so it limits what I buy in one trip. My handy cart can carry about a week’s worth of groceries. It’s kind of like a stroller, but for your groceries or stuff! Sometimes I miss having a car because it would be easier to drive to the parking lot and load whatever we need in the trunk.  But I’m getting used to making more frequent trips and enjoying the time spent walking solo- Justin hates shopping! When I don’t have the stamina for a long walk or a big supermarket, there are plenty of little neighborhood markets within 5 minutes of our place.

Europe is different from the U.S. when it comes to cars and driving.  Most people prefer to live in cities where they can walk or bike. And if they have a car, they only use it to go to the other side of town or outside of town.  In general, people walk their kids to school, to the store, and to restaurants or cafes to meet friends. The pace of life here is different. We will eventually get a car, when we move to the smaller village.  It’ll be necessary for our sanity to have a way to get out and about, to travel to bigger towns when we need more options for food and supplies, and to the airport when people need picked-up.  Now, the crisp, cool air invites us outside, and we enjoy giving our bodies more excuses to move.

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Sometimes you need to leave the sidewalks and let your feet touch the earth

We love our apartment, and using it as a space to welcome people.  Justin says he enjoys watching me play hostess.  For example, last night he invited his friend Miguel Angel (Michealangelo!!- how awesome is that name?!) over. He’s a fun, older Spanish guy who helps Justin with Spanish.  The invitation was for coffee, but he came in to find lots of snack & beverage options and I think he was a little surprised. Justin tried to explain the concept of “southern hospitality” in broken Spanish, and we all had a good laugh.  We’re grateful for this homey, little, inviting place, where people feel wanted. Even though it’s a 1 bedroom apartment, we have enough space & a dining table on our terrace, so we’ve had as many as 10 over at a time. We strive to host a meal a week, and share what’s been given to us. It’s also kind of a game for us to see how many nationalities we can have in our home. So far: Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Egyptian, English, American, Russian, & Brazilian. That means there’s a wild array of beliefs, world-views, and orientations. Our ministry right now is to the people God brings our way, and we love all the wondrous variety and color!

For the next 2.5 months our “job” continues to be exclusively learning Spanish.  After that, when we move, we’ll add other things to our plate, and still continue with some kind of language builder. We’re thankful for the experiences and challenges of living cross-culturally up til now, and look forward to more of what God has in store for us this year.

 

some cheerful neighborhood art near our street

 

 

A language learner’s reflections

We’ve been in Spain just shy of 3 months, almost halfway through our language program. In terms of language, it’s crazy to think how far we’ve come in a short time, but in another sense, we still have a long way to go. Justin & I are in different classes, which is probably healthy for our marriage! He tested into a higher level than me, but likes to say that I am a better student and will soon pass him up. Well, we’ll see. We have different strengths, so in a way we complement each other. Justin likes to speak, and is fearless when it comes to practicing WITH ANYONE.  I comprehend a lot more, and am getting to the point where I can read quite well. However, speaking fluidly will take a while to develop. Basically when we talk to people in Spanish, I listen & understand, translate to Justin, then he replies.  It’s been a good system! But we both have to be able to stand on our own.

Language learning is a humbling process, and it’s interesting to be on the other side of it after my previous work in TEFL.  I still remember the faces, expressions, victories, and struggles of my students learning English in Japan and Myanmar. Now, I have some idea of what I put them through!

The 4 languages of Spain. If you’ve never visited Spain, it’s anything but homogeneous.  For starters, they actually speak 4 recognized languages in Spain:  Castilian (the official language), Catalan (a blend of Spanish & French spoken in the east & along the coast), Basque  (completely unrelated & distinct, spoken in a small region in the north of Spain & the western mountains of France), and Galician (spoken in the western most tip). On top of this, there are regional dialects that make communicating even among Spaniards difficult. And if you think that Spain Spanish and Central/South American Spanish are the same, think again.  People can generally understand each other when communicating, but the vocabulary and accents are very different. And given the state of migration all over Europe, Spain is becoming an international hub, with many Arabic-speaking North Africans in the south, Germanic speakers dispersed all over, and in a university city like Salamanca, a stew of European, Asian, and English langauges.

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Language makes up a big part of our world right now. In learning a new language, we are literally re-wiring parts of our brain. So after 5 hours of immersion each day, we’re zapped!  We’re constantly translating, conjugating, and asking each other, ‘which tense do I use?’ or ‘what’s the word for <blank>?’  Even though it’s challenging, Spanish is a beautiful language, and it’s fun to practice and gauge our progress. It’s exciting to think about where we might be after 6 months, 1 year, or 3 years.

Awkward moments. Yes, I’ve had plenty of awkward moments with Spanish.  For one, on my 2nd day of class, I CRIED in front of everyone. I was overwhelmed and felt like a complete idiot because I didn’t understand anything! And to be honest probably jet-lagged and reeling from the transition of uprooting our lives. Then there was the first time I went to the grocery store. Apparently in some markets, you ring up and label your own produce before checking out.  So I got to the counter with all my unlabeled bundles of vegetables & fruit,  only to have the cashier say a lot of stuff I didn’t understand really fast while using a ton of gestures. Not to mention, lots of hurried, anxious looking people behind me, waiting to check out. Did I mention it was right before siesta/comida? Essentially, the busiest time of day. And there are the many times I got strange looks asking for “el baño” because in Spain they don’t really use that word (it actually refers to the bath tub), and they use “aseos” or “servicios” for bathrooms.

Clearly I’m used to having the upper hand in language (I mean c’mon people who travel, English is spoken EVERYWHERE, and we’re so coddled). Ok, well there are places where English is spoken more widely than others.  But Spain is not one of those places. Compared to other European countries, they are far behind and hesitant to speak English. Which is actually due to their history. For years the dictator Franco outlawed things like American movies and Spain was very closed off from the rest of the world. Things are changing now, especially with young people, but your average Joe in Spain does not know or speak any other language. Hey, just like Americans!

Things we don’t normally have to think about in our native language, can be sources of stress in another language. Here, things like receiving mail, filling out paperwork, finding a doctor, going to see a movie, ordering at a restaurant, talking with your landlord, etc., can be stressful while you are learning a language. It influences everything, including your ordinary, everyday activities. And as I eluded earlier, even going to the grocery store can be stressful. Soothing this stress often requires planning ahead, translating or googling some phrases you think you might need, and moving forward with patience.

Language, or lack thereof, can also cost you money and time.  I’ve tried twice now to ask for a grocery store’s discount card, and both times left in frustration without it.  We’ve had to pay expensive taxes on receiving mail (Christmas gifts!), because we didn’t know how to navigate the postal system. Another time, we ended up taking the “slow” bus (4 hours instead of 2) because we didn’t read the bus website correctly. In the moment these things are stressful, but looking back we try to have laugh at all our newbie fails.

You make rookie mistakes when you move to a new country. You just do.  Some days are easier than others.  Some days are super challenging. Some days we just want to be hermits, because it’s comfortable.  But, we know we won’t assimilate with that attitude.  We’ve learned to celebrate the small victories, like ordering at a new cafe, and actually getting what we want. Or the other day, I successfully gave an elderly Spaniard directions. And just yesterday I ventured to the phone store solo and talked to a clerk about potential phone plans.

We keep going and keep trying each day because we know so many people are behind us. And we know there are sweet souls here that God wants us to talk with. He gives us grace, even when we find it hard to extend it to ourselves. In His grace we are here, and we truly are grateful to be here, cultural/lingual faux pas and all!

 

 

 

America the great

Disclosure: I have no interest in a debate (there’s enough of that going on) especially in any forum online or through social media. This is merely an attempt to express my thoughts, feelings, and concerns. I’m writing to exercise my freedom of speech. 

As many are expressing, I’m deeply troubled about the upcoming presidential election.  I’m not a historian, political analyst, or sociologist (although that is probably one of the lenses I’m coming at this from since I graduated with a Sociology major). I am a Christian, wife, missionary, teacher, traveler, writer, American. I’m coming at this through these lenses too.

I’m not entirely sure who I’ll vote for when it comes down to it; but I do know I will vote; and I do know who I will not be voting for.

What has me feeling uncomfortable, frightened, and flabbergasted, is this whole notion of ‘Making America great again.’ What does this mean exactly? You mean the great America that chased Native Americans from their own land? You mean the great America whose Puritans executed women by burning them at the stake? You mean the great America that advocated for slavery, discrimination, and segregation? You mean the great America that idolizes sports figures and lusts over celebrities? You mean the great America who endorses those who claim they want to ‘protect our borders’ and ‘keep em’ out’ at all costs? You mean the great America that wants freedom- but only if that freedom aligns with the values of one particular party or class? You mean the great America that wants to bring God back, so we can affix the label of “Christian Nation” to ourselves once again, only to banish or deport anyone who doesn’t ascribe to that label?

This. This is what I fear.  America becoming ‘great’ again. Actually, I think America as a ‘great nation’ is a faint notion.  Maybe we had our day back in the early 20th century, when we allied ourselves with nations around the globe to stop the spread of fascism. Or maybe it was when we gave women the vote. Or maybe it was in the dawn of the space age. Regardless of when it was, or if it was, perhaps now, America is on its way out. History shows us that while nations rise, they also fall.  During the Cold War, America was seen as one of two superpowers, the other being the Soviet Union.  Are we at all disillusioned in believing America is ‘the Superpower.‘ Or worse, that it should be? With Superpower mentality, authoritarian rule is not far behind (Russia, China anybody?) History reminds us that these empires began with what were once great Superpowers in their day:

The Persian empire (550-330 BC), the Byzantine empire (330-1453) the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806), the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922), the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the British Empire (1603-1997), the Third Reich (1933-1945).

Maybe this sounds very unpatriotic, but I’ve traveled enough, lived enough places, and met enough people to realize I’m not just a U.S. citizen; I’m a global citizen.  Jesus didn’t lend himself to any one particular nation.  God doesn’t just care about what happens to Americans. He cares about what happens to South Africans, Syrians, Nigerians, Afghans, Mexicans, Cubans, Burmese, Russians, and so on. As a missionary, the plight of the world’s citizens concern me, not just my country’s.  As a missionary and a Christian, one of my greatest concern these days is religious freedom. Not just for myself, but for others as well.

Through a sociological lens, I am seeing the upcoming election in a much broader scope. In my studies, I remember learning about other times when fear rhetoric was used to compel people to rally behind something or someone they believed would offer protection.  But there’s a cost for this protection. The truth is, when you succumb to fear, or resign yourself to support a person, a cause, or an ideology as a result of fear, it always backfires.

These quotes sum up my thoughts well:

“One of the saddest chapters in the history of Christianity is how the courageous church of the martyrs became — with the help of the state — a fearful and persecuting church. Under Charlemagne, the punishment for refusing to be baptized into the Catholic faith was death. Conversion at the point of the sword became a cultural norm”

“A government that can shut down a mosque can shut down a church. A president who insults entire categories of human beings with impunity will not hesitate to attack any religious community that dares to criticize him.”

-quotes from Joseph Loconte, assoc. professor of history and contributor to the Washington Post.

New Year New Direction

This week we are excited to share with you the new direction we believe God is moving us.
Recently, we were put in touch with missionaries who have been praying for team mates.  They’ve been working beyond their capacity, and are in desperate need of help. Every day they’re turning people away from their ministry because they don’t have the human capital they need. What a shame to turn people away, people who could be followers of Jesus. This doesn’t have to happen!

As this need was shared with us, we felt called to respond and go.  Our prayers have also affirmed us. We’ve been praying to be a part of a team. We’ve been praying that for our first term we could join veteran missionaries in furthering the gospel.  We’ve been praying about teaching as our primary ministry platform. And we’ve been praying that this would take place in a Spanish-speaking country.

Well, about two hours west of Madrid, Spain is perhaps just the right opportunity.  The missionaries who have asked for our help are ministering in a region of the country where over half of the population are immigrants. Of those that are immigrants, most are Moroccan.

Immigrants are leaving North Africa in droves.  Spain is the second most highly emigrated nation in the world.  Meaning after the U.S., more immigrants resettle in Spain every year than anywhere else. Some seek refuge, others seek better opportunities through jobs.  Many need to learn English or Spanish, or both.

We are passionate about this for several reasons. This is a direct ask for us to come and use our skills and experience as teachers of English.   There’s need down the road for small business development, and lots of entrepreneurship potential. There is an INCREDIBLE opportunity to share Jesus with the UNREACHED.  And then there’s this: at this point in history, when there’s more migrant movement than at any other time, Europe may just be “the place” to reach the unreached. Here, maybe we can help bridge west and east, Christianity and other religions, Christians and nonbelievers. How humbling to be part of the reconciliation story between these two groups of people.
That old adage is true: “when God closes one door, He opens another.”

As we move towards this, here are a few important steps in our timeline.

  • Jan-Feb 2016- Finish out our ministry roles at NMSI’s home office
  • March 2016- Visit Central Spain; Begin Visa process; TESOL certification
  • April-May 2016- 4-6 weeks of field training for cross-cultural ministry (Center for Intercultural Training, North Carolina)
  • Summer 2016- Finish fundraising if needed, register for language school (in Spain), proposal for ministry development due to NMSI
  • July/Aug/Sep 2016- Say our goodbyes, prepare for deployment, move to the field as soon as we have visas

Ways we’d love to partner with you:

  1. Pray. For each other, undoubtedly, our greatest source of power.
  2. Be relational. Let’s be friends! Let’s encourage and admonish one another in our walks of faith!
  3. Give. Monthly, to sustain a long-term commitment, or one-time gifts to help with start-up costs.
  4. Go. On mission, whether that’s globally or locally. Engage others with the gospel.
  5. Connect.  In church, small group, or among friends or family who share a heart for Jesus.

Thanks for journeying with us.  We are eternally grateful to you and the vital part you play in this ministry. We would love to hear from you and how we can be walking with you in your faith this year. How can we be praying for you?

CLICK HERE to partner with the Hemming ministry!

Two Americans in Cuba

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Our “taxi” for the week, stopped along the way from Holguin to Santiago for coconut water

Justin and I recently returned from Cuba. It’s approximately 90 miles from Key West and took just a little over an hour to get there from Miami.  It’s so close, yet so far away. Cuba is unlike any other place Justin and I have ever visited….and we travel a lot.

Our purpose in going to Cuba was to survey the country’s viability for future ministry.  To aid in our assessment, we were asking 3 main questions: what’s the market and political climate like, what’s the church doing, and what needs do they have?

Our scope was limited to two major cities in the eastern part of the island: Santiago and Holguin.  Both have roots as Spanish colonial cities. We didn’t visit any part of the western island, including Havana, but feel we got a good representation in the east.

From the airport, we were picked up in a two-toned turquoise/white, 1956 Ford, with lime green interior.  It was fantastic.  Essentially, this was our “taxi” for the week.  Owned by a local pastor, he graciously allowed his son Ornello to drive us to and fro as needed.  Other forms of transportation included motorcycle taxi (a little scary when my helmet wouldn’t clasp) and horse and buggy (yes this is even more popular in Holguin than in Amish country). Transportation alone made you feel as if you stepped back into time.

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Revolution Square, Santiago
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Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (or Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption)

Our first destination, Santiago, was a hilly city, full of character.  We wove in and out of small cobblestone streets on foot and were able to take in quite a bit of the city’s history, such as Revolution Square, numerous colonial era buildings, a beautiful blue cathedral, and lots of local shops, uniquely Cuban. In Santiago we stayed with a Cuban family in their small but quaint home.  We had luxuries like running water, electricity, and our own room, rare considering many Cubans dwell in small spaces with multiple generations.  We even had an electric water heater- which Justin refused to use (picture a coiled light bulb with a cord coming out one end, which you submerge under water for about 5 minutes until water boils) Perfectly safe!

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Holguin, another colonial influenced city, was very flat. Hence the mode of transit here was the horse and buggy (which only cost a few cents to ride!). Of particular interest to me was the city’s cemetery.  When I asked to see this, our friend Carlos just kept saying, “Really, the cemetery? You American is crazy.” The tombs were beautifully white-washed, ornate, and mostly Catholic iconic. Some of the tombs for Spanish settlers, dated back to the mid 1700s!

In Holguin we stayed with a local couple and their baby, but in a much smaller space.  There are pros and cons to staying with locals when you travel.  On the one hand, you generally get a much more authentic and hospitable experience, which we certainly did.  On the other hand, you may not sleep for 4 nights because what you hear out your window at night are neighbors blasting music til 3 a.m., a cat in heat, dog fights, and roosters crowing in the wee hours of the morning. The bucket baths and flushes weren’t a ton of fun either.

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The “hill of the cross” in Holguin….over 450 steps! 

While there was much beauty, and some of the stunning architecture tricks you into thinking you’re strolling somewhere through Europe, Cuba’s poverty is not hard to find. People live on an average of $20 per month.  Foods such as rice and beans are subsidized, but many foods beyond that, are expensive. Speaking of food, I personally was not impressed.  Rice and Beans are the staple, and while we had some variations with lentils and yuka, overall the food was a bit blah.  One of my least favorite foods was the ham and cheese sandwich.  This is found everywhere and often they’re left out for days until they sell.  The ham is reminiscent of spam, and I have no idea what kind of cheese it is. One was enough for me. Thankfully, at different points we were able to introduce a little pork, and a little fruit into our diet. While it wasn’t great, I am grateful our meals were prepared for us, and they did certainly try to please our palates.

Back to my earlier thoughts. One Cuban said despairingly, “A man will work hard all his life, and have nothing to show for it.”  In Cuba, working hard to work your way up simply doesn’t happen.  Wealth is taken out of the country.  Those who have money, leave, and they take their wealth with them.  Too many shops are closed.  One man told us Cubans are not good consumers. Either way, it’s a vicious cycle that affects sellers and customers, or rather the lack thereof. Not a great climate for small businesses or your average entrepreneur.

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Transportation in Holguin

Religion in Cuba is a hodge-podge of Protestant (Baptists, Methodists, Assemblies of God, etc.), Catholic, Santeria, and like anywhere, a lot of nominal believers at that. However the Church we saw is a bright spot. The bulk of our time was spent listening to, talking with, and meeting pastors, youth leaders, seminary teachers, and church staff. We absorbed a lot of information and asked a lot of questions (with the help of translators- though our Spanish was getting good by the end of the week!). One of our main take aways was that the Church is actually thriving in Cuba.  They have a strong presence, strong leadership and sound structures which put them in a good position to continue training leaders and planting churches.  Many want to be pastors and missionaries, and the Church could always use more resources to support full-time Cuban missionaries or pay pastors full-time salaries, but it is evident God is very much alive and moving in this nation.

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Beautiful “playas” (beaches) in Guardalavaca, Holguin

Cuba is a beautiful country. Gorgeous terrain, green mountains, lush valleys, sculpted farmland, pristine beaches, interesting cities, and beautiful people. Most of all, beautiful people.  I wasn’t sure what to expect visiting my first communist country, but I suppose I assumed that all people would be staunch-faced, and on the lookout for anyone who behaved outside their conformity. What I found was the opposite.  People were warm, friendly, and excited to share their country with us.  We got our fair share of “stares” in large crowds, but I imagine what they were really thinking was nothing like what I thought they were thinking. Cuba is a difficult place to live, even for Cubans. It’s unpretentious in that what you see is what you get.  Tourism doesn’t seem to have robbed this country of its soul.  Yet.

Because in 5-10 years Cuba could look completely different, I’m so glad we went now.  When this country gets its first Starbucks or McDonalds, it will forever be changed.

Thanks Cuba, for allowing us to experience all of your raw, undefined, and complicated beauty.

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With new friends, Carlos & Madelin outside their home in Holguin