December 31, 2010

Tim Team

I figured I'd share this video with the world. I enjoy it. No one was seriously injured in the filming, although our wipeout was pretty serious.

I spent much of yesterday at Grace Adventures, hanging out with some Tim Team-ers from this past summer. It was great to be there, as I'm a big fan of those kids, each and every one of them. And besides, it's a blessing to my soul just to be there. I have many fond memories there, many that are with me everywhere I go, and some that only seem to pop up when I'm on the grounds. I don't know if there's another place on earth that has such an emotional context for me; just being there is an escape, in a way. I could drone on sentimentally with my whole history, but I won't. I wrote an article for their newsletter a while ago (find it here, page 4) that sums it up fairly well, if you want to read it.

Tim Team was a huge part of why I came back to be on staff, and why I'm involved in ministry today. I can't remember working harder or seeing the value of service more than I did my first week of SALT camp in 2000. It was an honor last summer to be involved in the program, and I hope these kids will come back to be on Tim Team again, and eventually on staff. If not at Grace, somewhere where they'll grow.

December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

It was about a month ago when I decided that I needed to come home for Christmas. I had been planning to put it off until later in January, just to come home for a visit. But it's an odd thought to think of your family, thousands of miles away, incomplete, eating homemade waffles for breakfast and later devouring a Christmas feast without you, reading Luke 2 before getting to the gifts. And so it seemed a much better idea to fly home and be there for Christmas. I didn't tell my parents.

Well, I sort of did. There was a bit of deception on my part, for which my parents have already forgiven me. I think. I told them I'd be home in January - check, cuz I'll be here until January 1. I told them I'd come home on the 21st. I flew into Grand Rapids December 21st. No harm done. Jon was my inside man, he picked me up at the airport. He also ran an errand to fetch my credit card about a month ago. I tried to be vague in phone calls leading up to my return, but even so, I assumed they must have suspected. But that wasn't the case. Mom and Dad were shocked. My sisters and brother-in-law were surprised. My sister-in-law sorta suspected because she sorta overheard a phone conversation with my brother that sorta alluded to it.

When I returned, I held my niece, Mae, and she just looked at me and smiled, and it looked like there was disbelief in her 18 month old eyes. I can't say whether or not she fully understood what was going on, but she filled me with joy. When I saw Elli, my other niece, she was tired and cranky and overwhelmed, and she screamed. She seemed to feel a little better today when I saw her again.

Today, my Christmas stocking is somewhere in Puerto Rico, in a package my parents sent for me. That's okay - it will be waiting for me when I return New Year's Day. It was worth it to be here, to hear Luke 2 (which is much shorter now than when I was 9), to make annual use of the family's waffle iron. We sat and played Balderdash and Uno, and frustrated as I was with the new rules that either I didn't catch or they didn't explain, it was a lot of fun. There was a huge blast from the stereo in the living room, with Mae sitting in front of it, suddenly terrified and bawling, having found the volume knob before the power button.

I've got another week here, with some time planned and some time blessedly open and empty, which I intend to keep that way and which makes it, in a way, planned. Then next Sunday, I'll board a flight and head back to Puerto Rico, away from the cold and (sparse) snow. And this time, I really have no idea when I'll be back here, when I'll see my family again. It's much easier for me to get here than it is for them to get down there. But that, I guess, is the tradeoff of doing good work in a beautiful place.

December 20, 2010

Christmas in Puerto Rico

Doesn't feel like Christmas here yet. Something about 85 degree weather everyday makes it hard for a native Michigander like myself to get into the holiday spirit. I don't have any decorations up, no lights, no tree, nothing of the sort. (For the record, my lack of decor isn't indicative of my grinchy-ness, it's mostly due to, uh, budgetary constraints.)

I, however, am just one sunburned Michigander on an island full of people who love Christmas. Puerto Rico is mostly Christian (and most of that demo is Catholic), so Christmas is kind of a big deal here. Just because I'm not decorating doesn't mean everyone else down here isn't. Downtown Ponce is decorated with beautiful Christmas lights. Lots of houses in the barrio put some Stateside displays to shame.

Like the states, Black Friday was a stay-offa-the-roads kind of day that left the retailers trashed. Even now, Walmart is a zoo and must be avoided at all costs.

There are all kinds of non-English alternatives for carols. Ever wondered how Silver Bells sounds in Spanish? Come visit. This means that I have not heard the usual barrage of Christmas classics since Thanksgiving like the rest of ya's. So I can still handle me some Perry Como.

Actually, Christmas here goes beyond Christmas in the states. It officially starts with Thanksgiving and goes until Three Kings Day, January 6, which corresponds with the Feast of Epiphany. I didn't know anything about Three Kings Day until I got here. The town of Juana Diaz, just up the street, is Three Kings Day central, apparently. Crowds from around the island come for the spectacle, and I heard they send people to Rome to meet the Pope in preparation for it.

December 11, 2010

No Comprendo, part dos

It's all good when I'm trying to buy groceries and the lady at the check out and I can't have a conversation. All she has to do is scan 'em and bag 'em, and I'm outta there with another week's worth of grub.

And it's not so bad when I order something off a menu without knowing exactly what's on it, because my taste buds have gotten used to making the most of mystery meals. (Sidenote: I am currently paying the price for an experimental meal from Monday, the leftovers of which I finished on Thursday and subsequently banished my appetite thenceforth. I'm too embarrassed to tell you what all went into my mac and cheese remix.)

But when you need to relate to someone, to help them feel engaged and at home and comfortable - and this is a big part of my nature, to make people feel included - lacking language skills poses a problem. This weekend, we had our service retreat, and one guy showed up who didn't speak English. He was the first to arrive, and I had a nice enough conversation with him in my broken Spanish, but we couldn't really understand much of what the other was saying. When you can't understand their words, it's nearly impossible to read a person. That whole "90% of communication is nonverbal" thing flies out the window when there's a language barrier. Think about it: You hear someone's words, and only then do you start to gauge their tone, their sincerity, their comprehension. (Hey, that General Communications degree is starting to pay off!) When you're not getting the words, you're not getting much of anything that goes with 'em. Or against 'em. Reading people is something I think is a strength of mine. But I cannot read people when I don't understand their language.

I spoke to a (small) group today for the first time, and had to use a translator. I talked about submission to God and trusting Him fully to meet your needs. I had a few pages of notes - read that as "a meticulously wordeed transcript." I knew when it took us a whole minute to get past the first paragraph that the transcript was gonna have to go because we'd be there for an hour. So it flew out the window. Also, there was the smell of a wet dog coming from a cage behind me, and really loud salsa music coming from next door, and that whole mac and cheese remix thing that I had to contend with. When you have to stop yourself to wait for translation every sentence, you can't find any rhythm, and neither can your listeners. I've never been very good at feeling out an audience though, so they may very well have gotten what I was saying. I think, though it was tough, it was a success.

The hardest part about learning a new language is listening. We get the urge to translate things, but I don't think you're supposed to do that. It's not efficient. We think in English, but to truly speak another language, you need to find a way to think in it instead. It has to do with this:

Words aren't really things.


Words are symbols of things. What we call an orange isn't really an orange, it's a thing we symbolize with the word "orange." It's the same thing that Puerto Ricans call a "china" or a "naranja." Since I think of things as English words, when I hear spanish words I try to put them into English so I can understand them. Bilingual people take that step out. I told Julio that it was hard to speak with a translator and he agreed. He doesn't like translating. He thinks in English when he's talking to someone in English, and he thinks in Spanish when he talks to someone in Spanish. I'm not there yet. I need to learn a lot more words before I get there. This, I think, is why vocabulary is important. I can think in little Spanish phrases and words. "Yo creo que" - I think that... "Hola" - Hi. "No necesito..." I don't need... Those are little things that I don't need to put into English to say.

This concludes the cognitive science lesson for today.

How about a video of me getting bitten in the ear by a lizard:

December 5, 2010

Ministering in Culture Shock

Over the weekend, we had scheduled a service retreat for college aged kids to come, serve, and pitch in by helping some people in the barrio.



This was to be my first sponsored program, my first gig on staff. I wouldn't really be running the show, but it was still a big deal because I hadn't seen us put on a retreat yet.

The week leading up to it, I asked Teresa if we knew how many people would come, but nobody had RSVP'd yet. That's typical, she told me, people usually don't RSVP but they show up anyway. So we made our preparations - booked a band, assigned times to speak, lined up some projects in the barrio. The cooks bought food. And Friday came.

From whenst this feedback came, I'm not sure, but I think it was largely through Facebook and word of mouth that we discovered "Lots of people have finals can't make it. A few said next weekend would be better."

Oh really. Huh. How many do we know for sure are planning on coming?

One. For sure. And the band.

Sooooo.... We maaaaay have a lot of people, we may not. Our team put our ears to the ground, er, phone, and did some digging. Lots of calls were made and a conveniently consistent picture was painted that if we moved the retreat to next weekend, people would come. And maybe bring friends. Hopefully bring friends.


We decided to hold off. We made more phone calls, sent a Facebook message (how did anyone get the word out about anything before Facebook?) and an email. We canceled with the band, and put off the work projects. As for anyone who didn't get the memo and showed up anyway, they would learn a valuable lesson about the importance of RSVPing, particularly for service retreats.

In the end, one person came that night (not the one we knew about before), took the news pretty well as I understand it, and just went home with a little extra free time. We lost our band, and we need to find a new one, and soon. There will still be yards in need of cleanup and fences in need of painting this weekend. And we'll be there, ready to serve.

On Friday, when this whole thing went down, I wasn't really shaken by it. I'm usually pretty steady and chill, unless there's a microphone in front of me. I assume that displacing a retreat in the states would probably take an awful lot more string-pulling and rearranging. People plan more. College kids have too much going on. High school kids - actually, all kids - have soccer and ballet and band and debate and winter ball and theater and tutors and all kinds of other stuff. They have some of that here in Puerto Rico. But there are far fewer pieces to rearrange here. It's more laid back, more chill. Like me. In that sense, we fit each other quite nicely. People tend to deal with things as they arise, which means they often wait until the last second for things, as well. I'm guilty on that one, too.

And yet, this poses some serious challenges for long-term as well as short-term planning. Not every retreat will be so easy to reschedule. We can't always allow our plans to align with the uncommitted, and we can't always hope the plans of the uncommitted fall our way. This is one of the clear challenges of ministering in culture shock.

When I figure out how to handle that, I'll let you know.

Tonight's sunset, put to two different musical styles: