Friday, March 3, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy



I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  I always know it's a good book when I can't stop  thinking about it once it's finished.  To give you a summary of the book, here is the information on the book jacket cover:

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis-- that of poor, white Americans.  The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside.  In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.
The Vance family story began with hope in post-war America.  J.D.'s grandparents were "dirt poor and in love" and moved to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them.  They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility.  But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.'s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America.  With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic history.
A deeply moving memoir, with its share of humor and colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility feels.  And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

I can't recommend this book highly enough.  Everyone who teaches school in our area should read this book in order to get just a glimpse of what some of their students go through on a daily basis and the effect it has on them.  I wish I could have read it when I was teaching fourth grade years ago.  Even though I was somewhat aware of the lives some of my students led, this inside look would certainly have added to my empathy for some of my toughest kids.  Even as a teacher of gifted children, I had extremely bright students who were coming from homes very similar to what J.D. described.  Some of them made it into the middle class.  Others did not.

Phil and I have recently been trained as volunteers in a juvenile court system program called CASA, court appointed special advocates.  In this program we are assigned children who are under the Department of Children's Services (DCS) protection.  Our role is to sort through all of the people involved in the child's life and advocate for a permanent placement that we believe will be in the best interest of the child.  The goal is to stay with this child throughout the time they are under DCS supervision in order to make sure the child doesn't fall through the cracks and get lost in the system.

Part of our training involved spending several hours observing juvenile court.  It has been quite an education, and in this setting we have observed many families who look like the family in this book.  It is easy for people in the courts (and teachers) to grow cynical in helping these families, but this book makes it clear how the system continually stacks the deck against these people. So Phil and I hope that we can interact with the people we come in contact with in such a way that we give them hope and a chance to make it out of the troubled situation that has brought them to court.  We want to think that anyone we meet might be a possible J.D.

The author makes a couple of other important points.  He firmly believes that blaming the system will never get you anywhere in life.  Everyone makes choices, and the consequences of those choices are the things that make our life what it is, good or bad.  J.D. also says that along the way he had key people in his life who made it possible for him to survive, and eventually, to thrive in the life that he has made for himself.  His story made me very aware of the difference one person can make in a child's life.

Another thought that I took away from Hillbilly Elegy is how fortunate I am that this is not my family's story.  My grandfather grew up in Kentucky and raised his kids there.  All of them left Kentucky just as J.D.'s grandparents and parents did and made it successfully into the middle class.  Many of my cousins are college graduates and have great careers.  But my family was not dysfunctional like J.D.'s, and I will always know that to their faith in God and their decision to live according to biblical principles played a part in their success.

Hillbilly Elegy gave me lots of insight, and I continue to think about the things I learned.  I hope many of you will check it out because, if you live here in Dunlap, there are people all around you who are struggling, and they need your empathy and understanding if there is going to be any hope of turning their lives around.

(If you're a person who is bothered by bad language, this may not be the book for you.  Mamaw Vance cusses like a sailor.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Take Aways from My Trip to Haiti


Houses on the hillside in Port-au-Prince

You can't go to someplace like Haiti without having so many thoughts and ideas to take away from the experience.  Here are a few of mine.


Another view of Port-au-Prince


1.  Haiti is complicated.  
          Haiti is a devastatingly poor country and has been for hundreds of years.  Though billions of dollars of aid have flowed to Haiti, the people continue to languish in poverty.  There are several reasons.  Big families are looked upon as important in many parts of this country and the simple fact is that there are too many people for the environment to sustain.  Also, the fact that they have had so many corrupt leaders in their government has lead to a very small elite class and a very large percentage of people in extreme poverty.

Roadside stand selling souvenirs


2  Lives are impacted by a tremendous lack of resources.
          In the village we worked in we saw people struggling with a subsistence level of living.  Tremendous effort has to be put into growing crops, getting and cooking daily food, and getting to and from the places you need to go.  In the clinic, many of the prescriptions we dispensed to people were for everyday medications that are so readily available to us in the U.S.  These were things like tylenol, Tums, Claritin, and eye drops.  Without the clinic, people in this area can't get simple relief from headaches or heartburn.

Tilling the soil


3.  Having access to resources has made a tremendous difference in the village. 
          We saw very few cases of malnutrition in the clinic.  That is partly because so many of the children attend school and are able to have access to a healthy meal at lunch.  As I have been working on the mobile pack for Feed My Starving Children, it was really interesting to see the impact that a healthy meal can have on the entire population.

The lunch served at the school

4.  White privilege is striking.  
          I found myself in a culture where my white skin put me a pretty small minority, but everywhere around me I saw the privileges that were afforded me because of my color and my nationality.  I had access to the nicest accommodations and services anywhere I went.  One of the friends I traveled with told me that last year they went to a nice grocery store which had armed guards outside to determine who would be allowed to enter. 

5.  Do everything with great love.
          I tried to keep this thought at the forefront of my mind the whole time I was there.  Without love, anything I do is wasted effort.  I often thought of the way Jesus interacted with the crowds that came to him for healing and felt privileged to be a part of His touching those who come to Him.  I tried to look in their faces and see Jesus ("Whatever you do the least of these, you do to me.").

Dr. Mark showing great love


6.  Put your drop in the bucket.
          It is easy to go to a place like Haiti and think, "What difference can this small thing I am doing make?'  Nothing ever seems to change.  But we were told to just come and put our drop in the bucket and do what we can do, and leave the rest to God.  He will multiply our efforts as He sees fit.



Saturday, February 25, 2017

Highlights from Haiti

I had many great experiences while in Haiti.  Here are a few of the highlights.

1.  Working in a medical clinic.  All my experience has been in the field of education.  It was a pleasure to step into an area that was entirely new to me.  I thought the medical staff was very good at what they were doing, and it was a pleasure to watch them do their thing.  The conversations you have around medical people are very different too.  Often they are pretty gross, but always interesting.



2.  Meeting Willem and Beth.  I think they are doing excellent work that is making a huge difference in the lives of the people in the area.  Willem has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Haiti.  He could have made a much easier life for himself, but he and Beth have committed their life to Haiti.  Their faith and faithfulness is very inspiring.

This book chronicles the work Willem
and Beth do in Haiti.

3.  Bearing each other's burdens.  Even though we were only together for one week, I felt a strong connection to these new brothers and sisters in Christ.  We had a lot of time to talk and to share.  Each of us had our own issues, and we grew to feel very comfortable letting people see us in our most vulnerable moments.  We shared lots of laughs and lots of tears.  It was a privilege.

Me and Lori

Me and Paul

Me and Julia


4.  Going to church.  The Haitian church had a very vibrant congregation of at least 300.  The music was very good but very loud.  The first song they sang was an old one I knew, "Count Your Many Blessings," and so I was able to sing in English as the Haitians sang in Creole.  (How awesome that people with so little worldly goods could still sing about their many blessings from God.) There were some testimonies, and some awards were given for Bible memory (I think).  Our little group got up and sang a couple of verses of Amazing Grace.  I enjoyed being there.



5.  Visiting an orphanage.  I had never been to an orphanage before.  This one was very nice, much nicer than most you would find in Haiti.  There were about 20 children, from little babies to toddlers to the oldest child there, a nine-year-old boy (it can't be easy being the oldest one there).  One of our team members brought several bottles of bubbles, and that was what broke the ice between us and the children.  They were beautiful children, full of life.  One little boy in particular was a heart stealer.  He was about 3 years old.  He would just go down the line of us ladies who were seated in a row.  He would climb in our laps, snuggle with us for a while and then move to the next lady.  Later he came back to go down the row and kiss us all on the cheek.  It was very sweet! I am not allowed to post pictures from the orphanage.

6.  Emily.  The pharmacist on our team brought his wife and 8-year-old daughter on this trip.  Emily was a delightful little girl, and we all had a soft spot for her.  The first night she came up with us to our bedroom to play some games with Cheri on her iPad and to have a story read to her by Carolyn.  But Carolyn was trying to download a story to read, and she was having trouble with the internet.  So I said, "Why don't I just tell you a story?"  Emily agreed, and I told her the story of Lazy Jack.  She was such a good listener that she repeated the story from memory after I was finished.  From then on we had "story time" every evening.  It was great fun for me to be able to tell some of my old stories,  and I got the impression that the ladies liked it just as much as Emily did.

Emily, Carolyn, Cheri and me


7.  Beautiful people.  I was surrounded by beautiful people all week long.  I loved all the people who served with me.  I also found the Haitian people very warm and friendly also.  As we walked to and from the clinic, most people greeted us with "Bonjour" or "Bonsoir."  Children would smile and wave.  I felt very safe as we walked and traveled among the people.


The view from my post

School children in their uniforms

One sassy girl

Next time I'll tell you about my take aways from this trip to Haiti.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

My Trip to Haiti

Most of our team in from of the clinic

I got connected with the trip to Haiti through some friends from Terre Haute, Indiana, who have come to Camp of the Woods in Canada for the past several years.  Their group takes regular trips to several places each year and one of them is Haiti.  When I asked if it would be ok if I tagged along too, they graciously said yes.

I flew out of Miami and met the group from Terre Haute there.  We traveled together to Port-au-Prince and landed there midday.  We were met there by Willem Charles, who was to be our host for this trip.  He is a Haitian who is known by almost everyone there.  He got us through customs easily, and then we made our way with our luggage past a gauntlet of people trying to sell us things and help us with our bags.  It was a little intimidating.  We got out to the vehicles, and I hopped in the van that we would be traveling in.  All of our luggage was thrown quickly into the back of a large truck, and some of our group jumped in the back with the bags.  Then we made our way through the streets of Port-au-Prince.  It was like a scene from the real Amazing Race.  Crazy traffic, lots of horns honking, people everywhere, no traffic lights, squeezing through tight places, passing on crazy blind curves.  OH, MY!!!

We made our way to the guest house where we would spend the week.  We had a nice meal every morning and evening in a new patio area that they had completed recently.  The weather was very pleasant for dining outside, and the food was very good for each meal. 

Our first supper

Dr. Mark, Julia, Paul and Willem



We slept in a room at the guest house that was very comfortable.  It was the first time I had slept under mosquito netting.  We did not have trouble with bugs during our stay, but we did have a couple of lizards who hung out with us every night.

Bunks in guest house

For five of the seven days we were there we went to the clinic. At the clinic I, being a non-medical member of the team, was limited in what I could do.  My job was to check people in.  I weighed them, took their blood pressure and temperature, and measured the height of the children who came.  I learned to tell them to "Sit here," "Stand here," and "Come with me."  And I touched everyone of them.  I found it such a moving thing to touch them, to feel the warmth of their hands, their leathery skin.  It was a pleasure to weigh the tiny babies, unwrapping them from the many blankets their mothers had them swaddled in.

The first day we were at the clinic we had to shut down early.  Willem told us that too many people who were waiting in line were using the bathroom outside and not going into the designated bathrooms.  We had to trust Willem's experience wisdom and experience in making that decision.  

The final day of the clinic I was able to change jobs, and I scribed for Dr. Mark.  I met the patient and through an interpreter asked about what ailments they had.  I asked questions about their symptoms and how long they had been having trouble.  I wrote the information on the chart, so that when the doctor came in he would just have to look at the information I had collected and ask further questions.  Then he would prescribe some medications, and I would write out the prescription for them to take to the pharmacy to get medicines.

Often the complaints were simply things like, "I have headaches occasionally," or "Sometimes when I eat I have heartburn."  And so the doctor prescribes Tylenol or Tums.  These people don't have access to even these common medicines on a regular basis.  One of the PA's on the trip was a fearless surgeon.  If anyone needed some minor surgery, she was ready to take it on.  We saw many pregnant women, some happy to be pregnant and some not so much.  Often we could hear the steady heartbeat of the unborn child echoing through the clinic as the doctor checked it out with a monitor.

Just one of the many children I worked with this week.

Every day at the clinic we ate lunch together at a pavilion on the school grounds.  Most days my lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  A couple of days I got rice and beans from the school cafeteria.  For students, this might be their only meal of the day.

Eating the school lunch

Our lunch time break

And so this covers most of the work we did during our time in Haiti.  But there is much more to the story, so I will save that for another day.





Monday, February 6, 2017

We All Belong




Last Wednesday night I found myself at Coolidge Park on an unusually mild and beautiful evening, especially for the first day of February.  Phil and I gathered there with Kathryn, Brandon and Madeline and other friends who were participating in a peaceful vigil in response to the controversy over the President's travel ban for refugees from several countries (I know the President and his staff say it is not a ban).  

There were all kinds of people there, many of them immigrants themselves.  Two or three immigrants or children of immigrants addressed the crowd and talked about the welcome they had received from the community here in Chattanooga.  They spoke of how they loved the country they left behind, but that they had learned to love this new country as well.

We held candles and at one point we sang "This Little Light of Mine."  It reminded me of candlelight services I had attended at church.

One of Will's friends that he grew up with was there.  I could tell he was surprised to see us.  But at the end of our conversation he said, "I'm glad you're here."  And I was glad I was there too.

In talking to friends about my experience there I've been trying to think about what I take away from all this.  I looked into the difference between an immigrant and a refugee.  Immigrants make a deliberate choice to leave their homeland and go to a different country.  They make their own plan about how they will arrive there and what their life will look like once they get there.  Refugees, on the other hand, find themselves in a place that it is no longer safe to stay.  They are pushed from their home by forces beyond their control.

Once refugees leave their homes, they most often find themselves in camps set up for them by agencies trying to help.  The conditions of these camps are terrible in many ways.  The refugees are vulnerable to dangerous people and lack of control over any part of their lives.  There is very little privacy, and no way to make a living.  Refugees can spend months, even years in this situation.

The international community, through the Geneva Convention and other agreements they have made with each other, have agreed to permit certain numbers of these refugees to immigrate into their countries.  And that is how the United States finds itself in the position we are in today.  

As an American, I realize the responsibility our government has in keeping us safe.  But, as a Christian, I keep trying to put myself in the position of the refugee.  Their life is a shambles.  There is nothing certain or solid for them to build their life upon.  They need our help.  So my first step in helping was showing up for this vigil.  And I will keep my heart and mind open to see what the next step will be.

There have been some really great articles out there about  this issue. 

 What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees comes from Relevant Magazine.

David Cook's article in the Times Free Press covered Wednesday's vigil and gave his opinion on this issue.

And finally, this fine article from the New York Times,  "Ann Frank Is a Syrian Girl", I found to be compelling and disturbing, and it gave me lots to think about as we once again face the issue of giving refuge to people who might be enemies.

Kathryn's sign featuring another stanza from Emma Lazarus'
poem that is on the Statue of Liberty

Madeline with her candle

Brandon and Madeline

Friday, January 27, 2017

Another Leg of My Amazing Race


In February, I will be taking of for another leg of my own version of The Amazing Race.  Let me tell you how this all came about.

In Canada, at Camp of the Woods, we have a number of groups who come every year from different churches in the U.S. to help us get ready for camp.  One of the groups comes from Terre Haute, Indiana.  They are a wonderful group of people and very active in many mission projects all around the world.  They regularly take trips to Canada, Germany and Haiti to partner with organizations they support.  I love that they really want to be a part of the things they support instead of being satisfied to just send money.  So when they were in Canada in June I asked them about tagging along with them on one of their trips.  They said I was welcome to come.

On February 15, I will be flying to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to spend a week volunteering at Mountain Top Ministries.  You can find out more about this ministry here.  I will be a part of a team that will be putting on a medical clinic for people in the area.  The group from Terre Haute includes a doctor and the rest of us will be put to work assisting in getting people the help they need when they come to the clinic.  My friends from Indiana have been joining in this ministry for the past 10 years or more, so they know the ropes very well.  It makes me feel more secure to be traveling with ones who have so much experience in this place. 

One reflection on my travels...

Following God changes your identity.

Before I started going on different legs of my Amazing Race I had traveled a lot in the United States but not outside to other parts of the world.  As I have shared my journeys here I have changed in many ways.  I see the world with different eyes and have a new heart for those in other lands.  When I meet people, friends that I haven't seen for a while, one of the questions I get asked is, "Where are you going next?"  That didn't used to happen.  People know me as a traveler now.  

It is very exciting to see how God brings about transformation in our lives.  

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Building a Palace



A week ago I joined the Dunlap United Methodist Church.  It has been a big decision but one that I am finally at peace with.  There are many good people at DUMC, and they have embraced me as a sister and friend.  I am thankful for their love and encouragement in my journey.

Joining this church reminded me of one of my favorite word pictures, created by C.S. Lewis in his famous Mere Christianity.  Here is what he says:

Imagine yourself as a living house.   God comes in to rebuild that house.  At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing.  He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.  But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense.  What on earth is He up to?  The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards.  You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.  He intends to come and live in it Himself.
All my life I have been a part of Baptist churches.  My Baptist cottage was comfortable and cozy, and I had decorated it to suit myself. And no matter what changes come to my life, the Baptist room will probably feel the most like home.  
And then things began to change.  After those many years in that cottage a new wing began to be developed.  That wing was my Canadian wing, my Camp of the Woods wing.  My world got bigger, and my cottage took on a new shape.  This Camp of the Woods wing is simple and rugged, but it has the most amazing view.  It is coming along quite nicely.
Then one day, much to my astonishment, a completely new construction was thrown into development.  This newest addition, this Methodist wing, is also coming along.  It is not as comfortable as I hope it will be someday, but that will come as I get the decor and the furniture right. I am learning to choose the right colors and tones, but it really is whole new color scheme than the ones I have used in the past.  And I have found some great friends who are helping me to get it all arranged in a proper way.
I never imagined the transformation my little Baptist cottage would undergo, but I am amazed at all that has been added to my life in the process.  I am thankful for all the friends and acquaintances who have come along to inhabit these new areas.  I can't wait to see what new construction might lie ahead.