I just returned from seven weeks that I spent among communities that Under the Same Tree is working with in Nairobi, Kenya and Kiboga, Uganda. Communities that I am a proud part of. Each time I return is a little different from the time before, with markers of increased trust and friendship. This time was beautiful. Each one of our dear families in Nairobi couldn’t wait to have our team over for dinner – sharing of their precious few resources so that we could celebrate being reunited once again. I shared with team members from the US that although it often makes Americans uncomfortable to accept the hospitality and generosity of those they have come to serve, it is so important to accept this gesture that essentially says “you are a part of us.”
sending out an update on what has been going on a as well when I have
more time and internet access 🙂
I have been in Nairobi for 7 days now! It has been such an eye
opening experience. I am so thankful I have had this opportunity to
spend time with the people of Kenya. I am learning some Swahili, I am
learning about their culture, their ways of life, their food, their
businesses and dreams, and how they are overcoming impossible
situations every day with smiles, joy, and hope.
I have been most impacted by a lady named Alice. To me, Alice is the
definition of joy. She lost her husband 2 years ago from AIDS and has
2 little girls at home to care for. She gets up every morning at 2am
to start making tea and biscuits to sell on the streets. She takes
all of her baked goods and walks to her shop. She works long hours
and then has two little mouths to feed. Visiting with her she was all
smiles, and a whole lot of laughter. The loan program that UTST has
set up has allowed Alice to rent a space to sell her goods. It has
helped her so much she says. We have a lot to learn from Alice. Every
day she faces seemingly impossible challenges, but yet she says that
God will never leave her empty handed.
Although there is a lot of overwhelming poverty, I am inspired by so
many and inspired by their faith in God. Many are or were living on
less than a dollar a day, yet, they are full of thankfulness and
praises to God. They are really teaching me that despite
circumstances, God doesn’t change! I am excited to continue to hear
stories of how the UTST loan program has changed lives, and to
continue to hear stories of hope.
Life here is very different than life in America. For one, I would be
exhausted if I had to do all my laundry by hand for an entire family!
They work very hard here. Most are up before 5AM and work late into
the evening, and also have children to feed and take care of. I have
learned that school is a very stressful and EXPENSIVE thing for
people, which is why the loan program has also been such a help for
many. The businesses they own have been able to grow therefore
increasing their profit allowing them to send their children to
I am trying to soak in all I can. I am keeping a journal so when I
have more time and better internet I can really share with you all
what life is like here.
My headaches have been at a minimum and I am so thankful! I am doing
well! Thank you everyone who has been praying for us. I can feel
them. I am truly leaning on God for peace, rest, and security, and I
know He will continue to provide that for us.
Love you all!
I hope you had a really wonderful Holiday season, and were able to take some time to rest and enjoy the company of family and friends!
I think it’s healthy to accept that sometimes life is always in a state of perpetual transition.
Over the last several years, my life has been anything but stable. It was on purpose.
There were leaps of faith involved, and organizations and ministries founded and grown. Under the Same Tree has grown, required lots and lots of work, and is full of potential. There was (and is) continuous fundraising, months in Africa, months in the US, living outside, staying with friends around the United States and around Saint Louis.. It was wonderful. It was exciting, and fun, filled with crazy stories. At some point, though, I started becoming tired. It was time to find a place to live again.
So here’s what’s happening:
1. David and I are working to increase our stability in life. A few years back, he left his job to have the flexibility to travel with me for UTST stuff. We accepted that meant we would have to be living on my less-than-enough-for-one-person income, making lots and lots of sacrifices. After a while, though, we couldn’t keep up financially with car repairs, my normally strong immune system started to falter after literal years of eating not much other than rice and ramen noodles, and prolonged periods of sleeping on camper beds, air mattresses, and floors makes you start aging prematurely. That’s just terrible!
These past two years of living in crazy ways was necessary to enable a healthy launch for UTST. It happened wonderfully! Now we need to be healthy too.
So, David is transitioning away from UTST and resuming employment working as a property manager for a Saint Louis based ministry (Love the Lou). Over the Holidays, he has also picked up some work at World Market.. (Oh how I love that store).
I am continuing to work as the director of Under the Same Tree. I raise support for my salary, and it is incredibly, exhaustingly difficult. (Just to be honest). With that in mind, if you could please send a few $5 bills (or more) per month to help maintain my employment, it would sure help me sleep better at night, and maybe work some extra vegetables into my ramen noodle diet. Please help UTST to continue to have a healthy director! And you can do that here: https://underthesametree.cloverdonations.com/staff-support/
2. We got an apartment!
I know, that’s some super big news. We signed a lease with a really good friend, and get to move on over in the new year. It’s in South City. If you know me, you know I have struggled with enjoying Saint Louis for the entirety of the time that I have been here. But a few years ago, I worked with a refugee resettlement organization in South Saint Louis, and was surprised to realize that I love South City. So, the new apartment is really close to Tower Grove Park, and I am SO relieved that I actually have a place to live!
Also, the camper will be up for sale in the Spring. (Yes, the one that we have been living in. It’s vintage and cute and spacious and I hand painted the details and I really do love it a LOT). Any takers?
3. We are on our way back to East Africa
From here on out, it is likely that I will be traveling to Kenya and Uganda twice a year, and taking travelers! This time, we have 6 travelers coming, spaced out over 6 weeks (not including David and I), so I’m really excited about that. We are sending all of our travelers back home with the story of a specific family that they will spend time with, and hoping that this gives UTST the opportunity to expand our base of supporters.
I’ll be back at the end of Feb, and most likely heading back in the late summer. Want to come?
So, Merry Christmas!
Then, I stumbled upon something that filled my heart with joy. I took an internship at an organization that helped refugee families with resettlement in South Saint Louis. I had never been to that area of the city before, and I was delighted to see women in head coverings walking the streets, Middle Eastern grocery stores, signs in other languages. I am originally from Southern California, from an extremely diverse area, and I was always unsettled by the lack of diversity I saw in Saint Louis and its surrounding areas. It reminded me of where I came from, a little. It turns out that Saint Louis is a major city for refugee resettlement in the US, because it has a lot of cheap housing available, and there once was a need for more factory workers. I started meeting families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, Myanmar, Cuba, Colombia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia.. and more.
I started making friends with refugees. I would come to their homes in the evening, after my internship, and have tea with them. I encountered some really hard stories, and situations that still seemed impossible to overcome. Even after being relocated from a war zone, these precious people still struggle. They are isolated and alone. They don’t know the language well. They don’t understand this individualist culture, or why their neighbors don’t want to talk to them. They have post traumatic stress disorder. They have health problems. They struggle to find purpose in their new American life. I loved being their friend. It was also exhausting. They wanted someone to lean on, to help them navigate this new life, and I was often one of the only phone numbers they had to call.
This was about three years ago, and I remember that the organization I was working with was preparing for new groups of Syrians to begin arriving at any time. They never came.
This week, attention has been directed towards refugees in Syria because a photo of a precious little boy surfaced on the internet. Now there are petitions and marches and demonstrations circulating around. The nature of the internet means that viral topics die down once the next thing surfaces, but this has been an issue for years. There really is a place for them here. If and when I ever have a more permanent place to live, I want to live in South Saint Louis among my refugee friends.
Through my undergraduate studies and internship, I wrote a paper that explains the history of refugees in Saint Louis, and why they are actually a benefit to our city. It was very difficult research, because there are so few academic sources on the subject matter. A lot of data was derived from first hand accounts and interviews. I had professors highly encourage me to get it published, but I never did. Now, I am reminded why it was a timely and important piece of research, and I want to share it. Right now, there are groups of people calling for door to be opened for Syrian refugees to be resettled in Saint Louis, and there needs to be evidence presented that this will be a benefit to our city as well. (Notice that I say “our city” – I’m not originally from here either).
Remember that there are thousands of refugees already here, too.. And even though it is hard and tiring, you can be that phone number that they call when they need a ride to the doctor’s office, help finding a job, someone to watch their kids, someone to come pick them up in the middle of the night, or just someone to share tea with.
The factors that inhibit new refugees from becoming integrated to the same degree as their Bosnian neighbors have significant implications for the future of Bevo Mills. Like the area’s former German population, second and third generation Bosnians are becoming assimilated into the dominant culture of Saint Louis and moving to other parts of the city. According to a Bosnian resident, “If you are Irish or German, your great-great grandpa came [to America] a long time ago and now you are all Americans. Eventually we will become as well” (Zahirovic ). Meanwhile, the new refugees that are continuously entering the area reflect such a variety of cultures that it is unlikely that a new mono-cultural enclave will succeed the Bosnian population. The marginalization of new refugees makes it difficult for them to hold on to their culture of origin, and often makes assimilation the only alternative to complete isolation. As the younger generation Bosnians join the dominant Saint Louis society as well, Bevo Mills may be threatened once again by impending urban decline. The constant arrival of new refugee families, however, guarantees that the area will remain a multicultural urban center.
One of about five groups that were producing really great material (in my opinion) during those years was Jars of Clay. (They’re actually still producing really great stuff… and the band has been around for over 20 years. Am I getting old?)
It was a time when I was asking a lot of questions about the world, and my role in it. I was highly curious, and highly sensitive to issues of injustice. In 2003, Jars released a cd called “Who We Are Instead.” (To this day, still one of my favorites). I was 13 years old. In the CD insert, there was a brief mention of Africa, and something about blood and water. In those days, I still had to ask to use the family computer and get on the internet. I spent all of my allocated internet time that day researching what turned out to be the very, very infant stages of an organization being founded to address the water and HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.
I was captivated.
I loved music, I was curious about the world and about injustice. In a moment, the two intersected. Artists were bringing the stories of these far away people to life, and I was all in. And they were just barely beginning.
I watched as Blood:Water Mission was founded by a group of artists who were passionate about this place called Africa. I watched as they brought on this college aged girl named Jena to create and direct the organization’s programs.
I was enamored.
She was eight or nine years older than me. (College seemed like an eternity away at the age of 13). She was passionate and articulate, independent, risk taking, and I hung on her every word. I paid close attention as she led this organization, backed by Grammy award winning musicians. I didn’t know that she had no experience. I didn’t know that all she was going on was passion and vision. She was my hero.
It was from them, from Jena Lee and Dan Haseltine from Jars of Clay that I first learned about the issues affecting Sub Saharan Africa. They would write blogs, and I would print them and keep them in a binder. They would write chapters in books on activism and global issues, and I would buy them and read the whole thing. I learned brand new words, such as “cynicism,” “idealism,” and “holistic.” I learned how the Christian church was slow to respond to pressing issues around the world. I learned about a far away culture and place that seemed so heartbreakingly beautiful.
Most importantly, it was from them that I first learned of the intersectionality of HIV, women’s rights, and sanitation in Sub Saharan Africa. I was like 14. Other kids my age were just getting over Backstreet Boys obsessions and I was obsessed with… a crisis on the other side of the world? I was a raging fire. I weirded my friends out. Including David, who at the time was not interested in dating me… probably for this reason. I was a little nerd who was dedicating literally all of my free time to researching a really big disease (I soon learned the word “pandemic”), and socio-political issues on the other side of the world. I read every book I could find. I had decided that I was a student of Africa. I remember writing that in a journal. By the time I finally made it to college, my professors were freaked out by the knowledge base I had developed. I wrote every paper on the issues that had so captured my attention. But I knew I needed to learn more from experience. I came incredibly close to taking an internship with Blood:Water Mission in Nashville… but somehow I ended up in Tanzania instead.
In Tanzania, I met a little girl named Victoria who was an AIDS orphan. She was 9 years old, and she had AIDS too. And Tuberculosis. She could barely stand, she wasn’t eating.. I carried her home from church one day because she was too weak. Two years later, she died. When I heard, I was beside myself. I wanted her to live. I wanted to give the rest of my life to her so that even though she died, she could live. I was all in. There was a fire in my heart.
I started a nonprofit organization by accident, kind of. I never really meant for it to happen the way it did. But I had friendships and relationships in Africa that I maintained, and I think that demands something of you. I met people there with vision for their communities without resources to make it happen. Even more than that, I saw people around me in America and felt like they needed to know what I had come to know. The kind of hope that I have only found on that side of the world. Somehow before I even realized it, I was managing this thing that came to need a 501-c3 certificate, and suddenly became a nonprofit organization. It was incredibly small, very challenging, scary, and I loved it. The same holds true today. Under the Same Tree starts with microfinance and economic empowerment, but the ultimate goal is to utilize the effects of the economic empowerment to reduce women’s vulnerability to HIV, to empower the widows and the single moms, to increase communities’ capability to care for orphans, and to prevent kids from being orphaned and abandoned in the first place. You see, in this region of the world, all of these things are interrelated and interconnected. It’s so hard to address just one thing in isolation. But we will take it slowly.
Back to Blood:Water Mission.
Jena Lee Nardella released a book this past week, chronicling her story of starting Blood:Water. She was my hero when I was a teenager, and I was able to hear how her fears and insecurities in those years are so very much like the ones I have now.
She wrote of early years, when they had so few donors and supporters, of a year they raised little over $1500. I realized profoundly that the little chunks of $30 I gave out of my teenage spending money that year were probably a significant fraction of that amount. I remembered poignantly the way that her story set me on a significant path. It is so interesting to go back and realize how your story can be wrapped up with someone else’s, even if you don’t know them.
At the end of her book, she writes:
“True hope is always hard. It is not a passive wishing. It is an active exercise, a choice, an intention. Hope means giving up apathy and despair and instead embracing the uncertainty that terrifies you. It is the sacrifice of keeping your heart soft… We will not feel the rush of serving as we did once, but we will stay with it anyways. It means admitting that the world is indeed a hard place to live, and it will likely break our heart if we keep engaging with it, but we will choose to hope anyway… it’s less about having it all together and more about the unwavering commitment to keep walking.”
I thank God for early 2000s Christian folk/rock music. I thank God those artists chose to believe in a college aged girl named Jena. I thank God her words and actions have propelled me forward for over a decade. I am so proud of what Blood:Water is today and all they have accomplished. I’m honored to have watched this organization grow from the very, very beginning. I’m thankful for all they taught me. I’ll always be a student of Africa. But now I am a sister, a friend, a partner. I’m still all in.