Saturday, November 8, 2008

The times they are a-changing...

This past Tuesday was easily one of the most inspirational nights of my life. Standing with a half dozen of my close friends, watching with hundreds of others in downtown Austin as the results of the presidential election were being announced, I couldn't believe the history that was unfolding. I'd hoped so much that Obama would win, but my years of living in the South had left me skeptical that our country had progressed enough to elect a black man president. There is still so much racial inequality in our nation, so many wounds from slavery & segregation that are still being healed... and yet on Tuesday night it was obvious that change has indeed come. I can honestly say I don't think I've ever been more proud to be an American as I was when I saw that Obama had clinched the victory, and then watched as millions of people in cities all around the country celebrated the historic moment with tears of joy and shouts of triumph. Seeing MLK's dream come true, that one day our nation would judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character -- it made me more hopeful than I've been in a long time about the condition of the soul of America. Obviously this is not the end, not by any means. It was just one night in a long journey towards the United States becoming a more perfect union, which in all actuality is a journey that will never come to an end. But there can be no doubt that things were different on Wednesday morning, and that the change was a good one. It actually reminded me of the way New Orleans felt the morning after the Saints first post-Katrina home game back in the Superdome. After so much tragedy, the Saints had crushed the Falcons in their "Welcome Dome" celebration, and as I'd gone to get beignets at Cafe Du Monde the next morning, there was such optimism and energy in the air that no New Orleanian could do anything but smile. That's how it felt to be an American on Wednesday, except on such a grander scale, with so much more significance.

And yet this morning as I continued contemplating this epic change, I was struck by a sobering thought. As a Christian, my hope definitely doesn't lie in Barack Obama to save our country. No president, nor any individual person for that matter, is capable of bringing real redemption and healing to our nation - only God can do that. And how does God do that? Through the Church. And it's that thought that made my heart sink. Looking at the Church, the Church in America specifically, it's hard for me to feel much inspiration. We are so divided, so perverted by greed and hate, so lacking in embodying the Love of Christ. American citizens may have voted for a black man to be President, but it's estimated that only 5% of churches in this country are racially integrated. We as the Church should be leading the way in racial reconciliation and fighting injustice and alleviating poverty, yet in so many ways we fail to do as much as non-believers towards addressing these issues. When I hear fellow Christians spewing condemnation on gays, or touting the right to accumulating individual wealth, or belittling those on welfare for their assumed laziness, it makes me feel like "What's the point of remaining a part of this sick, sick Body? This is a lost cause." And yet, the Church is my family. I have pledged my fidelity to Jesus, which also means loving the brothers and sisters that He has given me. And it means that, while we may struggle and stumble in our efforts to love God and love each other, we know that in the end we will be victorious in overcoming the darkness -- not because we create good after-school programs, or plan the right mission trips, or pass the right legislature. We'll be victorious because Christ's Love will reign in our lives. As Jesus prayed, "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:22)

And the truth is, I'm not just seeing changes for the good in America. I'm seeing changes for the good in the church too. I see Leroy & Sarah & Irvin and the other amazing leaders of Mission Year raising up a new generation of Christians who are learning how to be good neighbors. I see all the folks in St. Roch who are rebuilding New Orleans by bringing "beloved community" to the 8th Ward. I see Phil & Constance loving the people of Thailand, Jonathan & Lauren loving the Didinga in Sudan, Kelly & Mo & Annie & Travis loving the people of Cairo -- and so many more friends who understand that God's family isn't divided by borders and oceans. I see my fellow friends living in the St. John's neighborhood here in Austin - striving to share the Gospel with their lives, not just their words. When I see these lives, and the lives of so many more of you, I'm so encouraged to see so many others who are genuinely seeking the Kingdom. It may be a long, slow journey... but we are learning from those who went before us, and we are learning to trust in the only One who can make all things possible.

And so, I hope that with the dawning of this new age in America, that we as citizens will rise to the challenge of being the change we want to see (as Gandhi proclaimed.) But even more so, I hope that we as the Church will step up and become the Church that we want to see too.

Sudan: Post-Trip Summary

** I just realized that I never posted my final summary from my trip to Sudan (the one that went out to my supporters and donors.) So, here it is:

“So how was Sudan?”

The one word response: good.
The three word response: challenging but joyful.
Any answer longer than that, and it starts getting exponentially harder to describe.

On August 1st, I and eleven others headed out from Austin and began making our journey to Africa. After changing flights in D.C., London, Nairobi, & Lokichoggio (Kenya), we boarded the small plane that would take us over the Kenyan border and into the hills of Southern Sudan. Our destination was Nagishot -- which is not so much a village as a county of rural residents, home to a tribe called the Didinga. Our purpose in going was to experience the Didinga culture, meet local pastor William Laku and his wife Eunice, and to see and support the boarding school that they are establishing.

Life in Nagishot is extremely primitive. There is no running water or electricity, and only one road (which is accessible by car only during the dry season). The nearest market is a 36 mile hike away. The Didinga language is only now beginning to be developed into a written form as more outsiders have tried to develop means of translation. In some ways it is beautifully simplistic. No processed food or traffic reports. Campfires every night and breathtaking scenery every morning. Views of monkeys playing in treetops instead of rising condominiums. Recreation meant dancing and playing soccer instead of merely watching ESPN or playing Wiis.

And yet it is a very difficult life too. Practically all residents are subsistence farmers, growing mostly corn, wheat, and sugarcane to survive. Women spend their entire days either in the field or over an open fire – creating food for their families to eat. (After helping plant wheat and carry jugs of water from the river, we had a whole new appreciation for each meal we ate!) Healthcare is extremely basic. Almost everyone has lost a family member to the civil wars, and many have spent almost their entire life in refugee camps. For those who aren’t Christians, the dominant belief system revolves around appeasing the local gods – making sacrifices when the rains don’t come or placing curses on others when they are wronged. It is an oppressive and hopeless faith, and many become addicted to a local alcoholic brew that is created to provide distraction through drunkenness. It was into this dichotomy of beauty and pain that we entered, joining for thirteen days into the work, celebrations, and culture of the Didinga people.

Besides being students of the local way-of-life, we primarily strived to encourage the work being done by the Laku family and the local church to build a much needed boarding school. The name of the school will be “City on a Hill”, based on the Biblical passage in Matthew 5:14-16 which states that the church is the light of the world that cannot be hidden, leading others to praise God as they see the good deeds that Christians display. In our brief time with the church in Nagishot, it was remarkable to see how fully they are already embodying those verses, and inspiring to think how much MORE they desire to be a light to their community. The hope is that the school will not only provide education for the Didinga children, but that it will house and teach children from other surrounding tribes as well. Though historically there has been tension and violence between these rivaling tribes, William and Eunice believe that if leaders of the next generation can live together as children -- playing and learning and building friendships with each other -- then the tribes can form more peaceful relationships in the years to come. It was inspiring to hear the Lakus share about their plans first hand with us and to see that despite many obstacles, they are forging ahead with building. In our time with them we prayed daily for the school, helped transport bricks, carried timber from the forest for the desks, and visited with the children and potential local teachers.

While the dream for the school came from the vision of the Lakus, and while the hope is that the school will eventually be self-sustained without foreign aid, there is a great need for outside help in order to see the school established. Fifty years of civil war have left the Sudanese with few resources and little civil structure, in a land that was greatly underdeveloped to begin with. Our American team of young adults is committed to partnering with the Didinga and assisting their dream as much as we can -- believing it is both a responsibility and a joy to share the blessings we’ve been given, and knowing also that we have much to learn from the beautiful Didinga people. Currently, the relationship between our two communities is simply that of friendship – particularly between the Lakus and our team leaders, Jonathan and Lauren Ramirez (who will be moving to Sudan this winter with a long-term commitment to ministering with the Lakus.) But as we look to being more involved financially and logistically, our team is in the process of establishing a non-profit organization or a NGO through which to funnel resources and information. We are already receiving counsel from faculty at the University of Texas and from other professionals who are providing consultation for the project. It is so exciting to be a part of these early steps, believing fully that God has begun an incredible work!!

The process for seeing this vision become reality will be a long journey, but I invite you to join with us in partnering with the church in Nagishot. If you’d like to get email updates about the progress of the project, then email me at, and I’ll be sure to let you know about developments as things begin coming together over these next months. Until we establish an official organization, we will be raising funds through Austin Stone Community Church. If you would like to contribute financially to helping found the City on a Hill School, see the enclosed form for details. Many of us are also considering returning to Sudan for longer stints – becoming teachers, dorm “parents”, mentors, and project assistants alongside the local Didinga who are heading up the school. Please be praying for our team as we consider how best we as individuals can continue to advocate for and contribute to the incredible work that is underway.

Lastly, a huge THANK YOU for all of your prayers and support that made my own journey to Sudan possible. Whether I ever return to Nagishot or not, it was an incredible experience to enter into the lives of the Didinga tribe for the weeks that I did. I felt honored to share with others the rich blessings you all have given to me, and I left with many challenging questions and beautiful memories still stirring in my heart.

Blessings and grace to each of you,
With much love,

Friday, October 10, 2008

Autumn Arrives

Wow, ya... so it's been over a month since my last post. I don't think I'll ever get used to how quickly time goes by. Some brief highlights from the past weeks:

-- Coming back from Africa, I wasn't sure what I was going to do as far as employment goes, but for now I'm going to just keep working at Halcyon. It's enough income to take care of my bills, and I'm a manager now, and it provides me extra free time that I need, and there are some great social perks. So, despite some recent drama that had me on the edge of quitting, I'm probably going to stay there for a few more months at least. Working nights in the middle of the downtown-Warehouse-District social scene can be pretty crazy sometimes, but, there are a lot of reasons why I kinda love it too. And besides, if our economy keeps sinking into a deeper recession, I think alcohol and coffee are two staples that folks aren't likely to give up.

-- Celebrations!! Between lots of birthday parties, an awesome engagement party (congrats to Kelly and Mo!), and ACL Music Festival -- seems like almost every free night in the most month has involved lots of great music, drinking, dancing, and enjoying life with some of my favorite people. I know life isn't always going to be this enjoyable, so I'm definitely soaking it up as much as I can right now.

-- Future plans: Well, these are still in the works, but I signed up to take my GRE this month, and so my goal for October is to get that knocked out and to get my grad school applications underway. Prospects for the moment include the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT, Clinton's School for Public Service in Little Rock, and an Urban Ministry program at Eastern University in Phili. I'm just lookin to see what doors open first, then I'll figure out plans from there.

-- Current events: I finally had to make myself go an a fast from any news about the presidential campaigns. I was getting way too emotionally involved (with anger being the most prominent emotion), and reading through the election news cycle was taking up way too much time. I've known for a long time now that Obama has my vote in November, so I decided that there was no point in making myself upset over the completely outrageous and immature behavior that has characterized this whole event... What I HAVE tried to keep up with though is all the news about the developing economic crisis. My expensive liberal arts undergrad degree has done little to help me understand all the in-and-outs of the mess on Wall Street, so I keep digesting as many news articles and NPR/BBC reports as I can. I've still got a ton to learn, but I think it's safe to conclude that confusing greed for ambition is not really going so well for anyone at the moment.

That's it for now... gonna try to be better about keeping this updated. Much love!

Monday, September 1, 2008

City On A Hill

So, apologies on the fact that the Sudan essays have been slow in coming. It's much easier to blog about the Austin music scene than it is to try and gather all my thoughts about our trip to Sudan and formulate them into a few condensed commentaries.

But, for my first one...

I was thinking that if you only read one thing about my trip, then what I want to share about the most is our introduction to the boarding school that William and Eunice Laku are going to open, called City On A Hill. After almost 50 years of civil war, Northern and Southern Sudan signed a peace treaty in 2005, and since then refugees have been returning to reestablish their homelands and villages. One of the greatest needs has been for education – schools for the thousands of Sudanese children who will be the next generation of leaders for their country. Currently there are not enough government schools to meet the population of children, and the government schools that do exist are painfully under-resourced. Although primary education is compulsory for all children, in practice Southern Sudanese children have the least access to primary school in the world. According to the Government of Southern Sudan's Minister of Education, less than 25 percent of an estimated 2.2 million school-age children are enrolled in primary school. A 2006 UNICEF report found only 2,163 primary schools existed to serve a region with a population of approximately 7.5 million. And of those schools that do exist, less than 20% are housed in permanent structures, only 31% of all learning spaces have a toilet or latrine, and only 26% have any chairs or desks. There is also a severe shortage of teachers, with an adult illiteracy rate of more than 75 percent according to 2004 estimates. We saw some of this turmoil first hand as during the time that we were in Nagishot, the government school nearby had been temporarily closed down because there was not enough food available to feed any lunches to the students. So students were waiting at home for the radio news that would announce that they could again return to classes. (We heard when we were leaving that the announcement had come, and that the school would reopen the following week.)

And so in part to provide education to the youth in Nagishot, the Lakus have a vision for building the City on a Hill school -- and despite significant obstacles, they are already pushing ahead to get the project underway. There is no road to get materials to the site (right now almost all supplies are delivered via plane) and no well to provide water (currently water has to be drawn from a creek and then carried in jerrycans up to homes and buildings.) And yet, the Didinga have already started building classrooms and a latrine and a prayer chapel – all with faith that as they start doing what they can, then the rest of the supplies and resources will come.

I said "in part to provide education" – because education alone is not the only reason the Lakus are building the school. They also hope that City On A Hill will be a transforming agent of peace, bringing unity and hope to their land. This will happen because not only will the school be established for Didinga children, it will also be open to kids from the neighboring tribes. These tribes have a history of fighting with each other, particularly when the wars displaced indigenous communities and forced various groups to relocate onto land already occupied by other tribes. In a sad struggle that pitted refugees against their fellow countrymen, violence then ensued as tribesman fought to secure land needed for farming and cattle. The Lakus want to change this aggressive history by bringing children from rivaling tribes to live together at the boarding school --- not merely learning English and math together, but also playing together, learning each others' cultures, and building friendships together. They would also hear the Gospel together – hopefully gaining an understanding that as much as Christ died to reconcile us to God, He also died to reconcile us to each other. Perhaps then the future leaders of Sudan will be united in taking on the challenges of their country as brothers, no longer divided by needless hatred and alienation.

While we were in Nagishot, our team contributed in small but tangible ways to assisting the school. We hauled bricks from the kiln to the building site (with no roads, this meant literally walking on foot via narrow, muddy paths), we carried fresh-cut lumber from the forest to be cut & shaped into desks, and we spent hours prayer walking around the campus, interceding for all the many needs. All of us who went on the short-term trip were also invited to return again to be a part of the long-term work that will be needed to see the school come to completion. Perhaps as teachers, or nurses, or dorm guardians – we've been welcomed to join with the Didinga community in this incredible work. I'm not sure yet that I'll ever be going back for a longer stint, but I do know with certainty that this project holds so much promise and that I want to be supportive of the school regardless of whether I'm in Sudan or America. As things continue to develop, there will likely be many ways that those of you reading this can be involved in the creation of City on a Hill too. Currently some of my teammates are working on establishing a non-profit or NGO to manage the state-side operations of fundraising and providing supplies. There are also plans for developing curriculum and serving in numerous capacities on the front-lines in Sudan. If you think that this effort is something you'd be interested in learning more about, then let me know and I'll keep you updated as more details develop.

Free Ben Harper Concert = Emily Loves Austin

Yesterday was the Nike+ Human Race 10K – an event of superb mass-marketing that involved 25 major cities all around the world hosting races in the name of uniting humanity. Kinda wish I'd known about this earlier, 'cause I've been feeling that as an official Austinite it's now my duty to train for some sort of city-wide athletic competition, most likely some kind of long-distance running since right now the other two ever-popular triathlon events of biking and swimming don't seem appealing to me at all. And though I didn't run in it, props to the more than 14,000 people who flooded downtown to take part. That means (according to the guy with the mic last night) that Austin had more participants than either Chicago or New York, and just under Los Angeles. Plus, Austin was the 2nd fastest city in the world. I knew I picked a cool city to move to.

Even more exciting though was the post-race entertainment. I'd written earlier about how Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals were headlining the concert, and that supposedly only race participants could attend. I decided to take my chances though, figuring that as long as the show was outdoors, then surely I could find a way to get in. And indeed, the stage was set up at Congress & 11th in front of the Capitol, and the one small sign stating "Racers Only" was doing absolutely nothing to keep outsiders from entering inside the guardrails (as if standing outside the guardrails would have been very far away anyways.) So to my complete delight, I found myself about 6 rows from the stage for a totally free Ben Harper concert – so great! Even though the show wasn't that long, Ben definitely lived up to his reputation for putting on a stellar live performance – steering away from his more mellow tunes to do mostly intense, upbeat numbers (though personally I love his mellow acoustic stuff the best.) Personal favorites were "Into the Colors", a cover of Bill Wither's "Use Me Up", and "Black Rain" (appropriate since thoughts were definitely with New Orleans.) He closed with "My Own Two Hands", which had everyone dancing with raised arms for a pretty inspiring ending.

The only thing I could possibly complain about was that the majority of the people at the concert HAD actually ran the 10K, so the amount of B.O. was pretty horrible at times, and making my way through the crowd meant touching way too many sweat-drenched t-shirts. But, I couldn't hate too much given the fact that they'd just ran for 6 miles straight while I had been sitting in the AC… plus, being Austin, most of the B.O. was hidden by an even more prevalent smell of weed. All in all, it left me feeling quite a bit of affection for Austin for making such an event possible. A conversation later in the night would again have me missing Jazzfest and brass bands and all the beautiful music of New Orleans, but, nonetheless, the ATX is definitely growing me :)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Since I'm not there to tell the story...

I'm posting a link to someone who can.

Emily Rhodes was one of my roommates and coworkers last year as we did Katrina disaster relief work with Desire Street Ministries in New Orleans. She continued living in Nola after our volunteer program ended, and now she's giving updates on the current situation going on with Hurricane Gustav. For her perspective, check out:

Memories of a One Hurricane, Fears of Another

I'm a day late on this one... but just wanted to write something to commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which happened three years ago yesterday. I haven't been to New Orleans since Mardi Gras this spring, but the city has been on my mind a lot the past few days. I've wondered about how progress is coming in rebuilding, I've reminisced on the year that I spent living there, and I've missed the friends that are still there working to restore the city. Oh, and I've longed to hear some Trombone Shorty and Irvin Mayfield. :)

Obviously when August 29th rolls around on the calender, a lot of people will be thinking about Katrina (was it just me or did Obama's two references to New Orleans receive extra loud applause during his acceptance speech at the DNC?). And while I can vouch that the residents of New Orleans never STOP thinking about Katrina, it's actually not the hurricane MOST on their mind during this commemorative day. That's because Hurricane Gustav is already a Category 3 with a possibility of strengthening into a Cat 4 after it crosses Cuba. And though it's too early to tell where exactly it will make landfall, trackers are predicting that the storm could hit New Orleans dead-on. I spoke with some of my friends who live in Nola, and they were evacuating to Baton Rouge last night. I can't really express how much I'm hoping Gustav DOESN'T hit New Orleans. The residents have been through so much in the past 3 years - I don't know how many of them could continue if all they've done to recover is destroyed by another hurricane. For anyone who would, now would be a great time to offer up some prayers for grace, hope, and strength for all the folks on the Gulf Coast.

A couple links:

Anderson Cooper did an outstanding job in his reporting of Katrina, and more importantly, of the recovery process and failures of the government throughout the whole ordeal. Check out his 360 blog:

From the Times-Picayune, columnist Chris Rose can always be counted on to deliver poignant commentary on the status of the city, wrapping up biting truth within humor and sarcasm. For his latest: