The Onward Journey

“All this,” David said, “I have in writing as a result of the Lord’s hand on me, and he enabled me to understand all the details of the plan.”

Leave a comment

Who is our Neighbor?


Over the last several weeks I have been blogging about my experience with ERN, a network that provides diverse support to refugee families including: language interpretation, transportation and guidance, food for the families, and tutoring for their children. What has become explicitly clear to me is that it provides more, much more, to the recipients as well as to those of us who are involved. Hospitality, that’s the more! Yes, I get to see the smiling faces on the children when they learn the difference between, “no” and “know”, and the warm appreciation and thanksgiving offered by the adults when they receive their bags of fruits and vegetables. This is all good, but what is most heartwarming is the feeling of togetherness in the world. I don’t have to understand Arabic or Burmese to receive the feeling being communicated…Maybe it’s like trying to define LOVE….words just don’t always do it.

 Scripture invites and challenges us to care for the marginalized, those on the fringe, our “Neighbor”. When we offer our hand and heart to help another, by having food to eat, we are sharing a meal, “Breaking Bread”, in a way. I have come to appreciate this more. I am being fed as well, all this in the spirit of love and life. The plastic bags full of vegetables and fruit are handed over to our guests with love and they are received in love.  How great and wonderful is that?  I love the feeling and am blessed by this opportunity.

 Tutoring helps provide a language to communicate with words and expressions needed to facilitate living in San Diego today, but the feelings, expressions, and body-language I see, and feel, go right to the core of who I am. I have been growing in my ability to see all the gifts that we have, freely given: breath, beautiful weather, safe water to drink, a roof over our heads, and life to live another day, etc., through a different lens. The lens is, “Who is my Neighbor?”, and this is a beautiful view. This is a form of the “Grace” freely given, so often spoken about in my religious life; but when I feel it in my spiritual being, it hits home and lets the “Good News” take life and form.

The network continues to provide interesting stories of encounters with my “neighbor”, people I did not know existed, with stories and lives that are different from my own, but similar in so many ways. The “spider monkey” a dad brought home from a hunting trip to his children in the South Sudan, like the puppy we may have received from a parent, who DID NOT get buy-in from the other parent…Yep, the Monkey and the Puppy both went to a farmer friend who “Had more room and would be a better home for the monkey and/or the puppy”. I never did buy that story, did YOU? See how similar all our lives evolve, no matter where we are born, what language we speak, or what national origin. We are all the same, children of God and worthy of our neighbor’s love!!!

 We are all trying to live a common life, sharing our lives with one another in the best way we can. I have been blessed with the opportunity to infiltrate a community of needing, caring, living and loving brothers and sisters, young and old….“neighbors”. In their eyes I see my own life.  In their hearts, and in my own, I feel the love of God manifested in sharing part of our journeys in life with one another.

1 Comment

Twists and Turns Without Any U-Turns

 Twists and Turns Without Any U-Turns

Life is full of a series of twists and turns, missteps and wrong steps, but there is really never a U-turn. When I would say things like that to my children, my girls would give me a “Sure Dad!” …the boys would respond with something like, “REALLY?” This past week has been no exception to that statement.

This was the beginning of summer break for approximately 75% of the students we tutor, while the others are enrolled in year-round school. The Refugee Network elected to offer tutoring throughout the summer in an effort to help the refugee children further close the gaps in their studies. The program was launched with minor twists that required a bit of flexibility on the part of the volunteers and staff, while remaining totally transparent to the students.

 I was even blessed with the opportunity to pick up six children at two different housing complexes in a part of town that I was totally unfamiliar with. I was provided a hand-drawn map and very clear instructions. As I drove across town, my mind raced on a series of “what if’s?”… I get the wrong children?, There are more children than the van has seat belts?, Will their parents release them to go with me?…and back to, What if I pick up the wrong children?  I was feeling some of that uncertainty that the Hebrews must have felt when they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness after their release by the Pharaoh of Egypt. I did what Moses had those people do….I went through my favorite prayer in time of stress and drove on.

 When I arrived at the first location, one of the staff members, who was scheduled to be off that afternoon, was standing in the parking lot smiling from ear to ear.  Prayers are answered in many ways, some I never even imagine!!! She had five students with her who she helped into the van and told me not to worry about the other three children I was scheduled to pick up… other arrangements were made.  Again, I sighed relief as the van is only able to carry driver +6. Before I drove on, I offered the eldest child, I’ll call her Pat, the opportunity to be my assistant. Her eyes brightened and she said, “With pleasure, yes of course”.  A couple of the other students wanted the job, but graciously accepted my offer to provide the opportunity to someone else next time. Pat translated something and the passengers giggled a bit and then settled in for the 20 minute ride over to the tutoring center.

We had more students for tutoring than we expected as this is a new offering for the kids and regular SCHOOL ENDED last week. We were pleased with the turnout and it took all the creative energy of the coordinator to provide a meaningful experience for the students and a value-add feeling for the volunteers.

One of the volunteers bought planting material, a planting pot, soil and seeds for each student. The students were divided into groups of 10 where he explained how to properly plant the seeds, how they should care for their project, and what they should expect to see happen over the next several weeks. Each child put their name on the plant (to be) and stored them in the box that had the driver’s name.

 My assistant, Pat, was quick to gather the other four students, who came in our van and explained the process to them. Watching these young people part with their planting, even though it would only be until they got home, created a picture of love, protection, and concern for their project. It was clear that they will do whatever they can to help their plant come to life and bear fruit.

After snacks, Pat gathered the other children riding in our van and helped each one find their seat, put their seatbelt on and asked them to be quiet for the ride home (I THINK) as it was so quiet in the van you could’ve heard a pin drop. Yes my friends, the children and their plants returned home, and once out of the van their giggling resumed and the interchange between parents and children was clearly all about the new life of the plant they had taken responsibility for.

The Network is planning to incorporate various fun/learning activities that will balance the tutoring time with their class assignments to provide experiences with music and art, and chess and for the older (7th grade plus) children.  We will be having interactive discussions on values and positive decision-making. There are wonderful volunteer opportunities for people interested in helping these young friends learn and grow right here in San Diego.

The day following the planting project, one of the Case Managers informed me that one of the families she supports told her a child’s disappointment when he found that the new life (planting) they were helping into existence was going to be a “bean plant” and that was all he had to eat in the refugee camp and really would have preferred to grow a flower. We, as fellow humans, have so much to learn and understand about the people we come in contact with.

A significant portion of the student population will be sponsored to attend a week at summer camp, which will give the children experiences in nature, away from home, with professional camp counselors and “fun managers”. An opportunity came about when it was discovered that the 30+ sleeping bags that the children will be using (12 to 15 each week) were in need of cleaning and repacking. Not wanting to detract from the ongoing work supporting the refugee population with food, tutoring, Doctor and other professional visits, I made some calls and had immediate support, from a local church, to wash all of the sleeping bags in time for the initial departure, and steps are underway to share this project with other youth groups throughout the Diocese on a weekly basis to ensure that each child has a clean sleeping bag, towel and backpack to use during their camping adventure.

We have not yet been able to identify one or more volunteers with a pickup truck to help increase the amount of food the Network will be able to distribute. We would love to hear from someone who would be willing to be available with a pickup truck on Tuesday mornings from 7 AM until about 11 AM…this would be a huge blessing.

One of the case managers, who had returned from maternity leave last week, sat with me for a chat during which she wanted to find out how to have her new baby baptized. We talked about the responsibility of the parent and the need for her to speak with her priest. She admitted that she was uncomfortable because she did not know the custom in this country. I offered to get her a book, and work with her and her husband, so they would be more comfortable when they meet with their priest. She is well on the way to being a perfect example of what God expects from parents.

Last week I shared the story of the homeless man who wanted to help tutor the refugee children, and what an impact it made on many of us. It also had an impact on this young man, as he returned again this week. Unfortunately he was not able to provide his assistance when he came to help, as the “process” had not been completed. I remain confident and prayerful that this situation will be corrected… there are no U-turns in life.


Journeying–Another View

Journeying-Another View

When a child is asked, “What does journey mean?” the immediate response is often a trip to the train station, the airport or driving in their car. What does our journey look like? This week has taken me to pockets of our city that I never knew existed, and afforded me the opportunity to meet with people on so many varying phases of their own journeys. When I think of my EARLIER life’s journey, I can see that they were more about destinations, goal achievements or just doing something I wanted to do or thought I should do.

This week opened so many new views of what my journey now looks like and maybe with my writing, you will have an opportunity to see your journey in a different light. My week started with a mom of a student I have been tutoring for the last several weeks advising me that her son was concerned, SHE SAID “P… was concerned that you didn’t work with him last week, and wanted me to find out if you were okay.  Had he done something wrong?” After I picked myself up and caught my breath, I explained to this mom that I had been asked to do something else and when I got to tutoring he was already working with someone else and I chose not to interrupt them. I was so moved that this new 10 year old friend could voice such concern for another person. Needless to say, mom knows her son very well, so it didn’t take much convincing for her to know that her son did nothing wrong, but that he did warm my heart by his questioning why I was missing in action. We were able to get back together this week and he was anxious to tell me about the book he was reading and launched us into a discussion about discrimination, and why people can’t be friends with one another. This young man’s journey has been full of twists and turns, yet his heart and mind are directed in a very positive direction. How cool would it be if we all could think like my dear friend, P…! I also learned that I will be sure to acknowledge my young friend whenever he comes to tutoring when I’m not lucky enough to work with him.

I wrote earlier about the two fine women I am honored to help pick up and distribute fruits and vegetables that we gather at the Food Bank. They still outwork me by a significant margin, but this week I was blessed with the opportunity to see diaconate work in process. During our food gathering time, at the food bank, the ladies were conversing in Arabic while working feverishly at gathering up all that we were entitled to take.  When there was a break in their conversation, I questioned them if everything was okay. They reminded me that we had not had an adequate portion to give to the last families we visited a couple of weeks ago, and that we should not forget to drop off some additional food for them this time, so that they will be okay until we come back the next time. The discussion they were having would have needed someone very experienced in the use of the computer spreadsheets to do the calculation of what 18 families received last time, and how many are in each family, and what would they need to “make it” until our next scheduled visit.  Talk about “Love of our Neighbor”!  Well, I invite you to make a mental picture of the last few sentences, and you will have it. The original seven Deacons were given the responsibility to bring bread to the widows.  These fine people do it week after week out, and “MORE…MUCH MORE”!

 This was the alternate week where we were afforded the opportunity to deliver food to several housing complexes that are homes for from 4 to 18 families. These fine people don’t have transportation, so we bring the food to them. They wait in the parking lot of their apartment complex for us to arrive, their very young children in tow and their babies secured to their chest, and help one another parcel out the portions we are able to give providing potatoes, kale, spinach, tomatoes, onions, fruits and other vegetables for the number of family members who live at that location. The love, care and appreciation they show toward one another and toward us is heartwarming, as it in no way resembles the chaos at an Apple Store when people are gathered to purchase the latest electronic gadget. Another beautiful example of how journeying in the Kingdom should look.

One day this week, a young homeless man came to the door when tutoring was just beginning. I went over and introduced myself and asked him (I will call him Joe) if I could help him. Joe said that he met a man last week who told him that we tutor refugee children every week, and Joe felt he might be able to help. After a brief, maybe too brief, introduction to the coordinator of volunteers, Joe and I worked with a young student on her homework. Joe was very nervous and quiet for the first few minutes until the student asked for an explanation on what she was to do. Joe quickly picked up the paper, read the instructions, and in setting the paper before the student, explained that she was to find the differences between the two drawn pictures laid side-by-side. The student would point at something she thought might be different and Joe would gently suggest that maybe it looked exactly like the other picture and that may be it wasn’t one of the differences. The assignment was to find 10 points of difference and I must be honest, the three of us only found a couple. When snack time came the student offered to share some of the orange that she was given. Joe and I declined until our young friend said, “I had enough…would you like this piece?” Joe accepted the offering and our friend had a smile from ear to ear, and so did I. We may have not had great success in discovering the 10 points of difference between the two pictures, but the three of us had a positive step in our journey of life.

After the students left on the Networks Van, and cleanup was complete, Joe met with the coordinator and expressed an interest in coming back to help the children, if it would be okay. When I was walking to my car Joe stopped me and thanked me for giving him an opportunity to help. Joe may or may not come back, but he left an impression on the student and many of the other volunteers gathered to help this group of young people trying to learn a new language in a new country. Two days later in another part of town several blocks away, I ran into Joe, and he approached me with a warm smile and thanked me again for the opportunity to help. When I asked Joe if he needed a ride, he said, “No, I’m walking up to the Nazarene Church down the street where I used to attend, and say a prayer for the refugees”.

There are so many views we can take on this journey we are on, and I pray that I always have open eyes to see the splendor that is around us in so many different shapes and sizes. May your journey be full of promise and hope!


The Journey with Our Neighbors

The Journey with Our Neighbors

            I changed the title this week for a couple of reasons that will become apparent. For now, I ask you, the reader, to pause before continuing and ponder the word “Neighbor”. This week I was introduced to a young man…“James, one of the lost boys of Sudan”. It was further explained to me that he was recruited into the militia at the age of nine and after a few years of witnessing atrocities not fit to speak about, he and a number of his friends ran away, and became hunted fugitives. James and a couple of these young children made it to a refugee camp where they spent years waiting to be approved and accepted by a host country. For James, San Diego became his destination. James has been given a room in the home of a caring family who are also refugees. My encounter with James happened when he arrived at St. Luke’s while we were unloading the truck full of fruits and vegetables we had selected from the Food Bank. James had his arm in a sling and looked as though he was not feeling well. When I asked him if I could do anything to make him more comfortable, he replied, “Just Pray for Me and the Men that Hurt Me”. I was thinking he meant the militia in his home country and said a pray of intercession on behalf of those in harm’s way throughout the world. However, when I finished, he explained, “I was mugged a few nights ago and when they found that I had no money, only an old phone a friend gave me, they beat me more and one guy cut me”. He showed me his wound….This “neighbor” of ours was cut from the top of his left shoulder down to below his armpit. He required more stitches than I could count. And yet, James had already forgiven the men that hurt him and wanted to pray that they would find peace in their lives and not hurt other people. I have no doubt that James is a walking, breathing example of Grace, and I pray we all journey toward the love and peace that James, this “neighbor” of ours, shows.

 I also had the opportunity to speak this week with Mary, another “neighbor” in our community. Mary was explaining how she and two other families had been saving for a down payment to purchase a car that they could share.  She told me, “last week a friend told us about a man that had good cars and would take what we had as a down payment and allow us to pay off the balance over time”. Mary and her friends trusted this man “friend” and went to look at the car that they thought would be perfect and gave the man their accumulated savings with the expectation they could come back the following day and pick up their car. Unfortunately, when they returned to the lot where they had seen the car and made the down payment, there were no cars on the lot, and have been unable to find the man who took their money, or their trusted “friend”. Mary went on to say, “I have been at zero before and will start again”. She did express her frustration and the hurt she felt, as she, her friends and children thought that once they left their homeland behind, they would be in America, safe and able to live in peace. She continued, “It is better here, but you need seven sets of eyes to be safe”. There needs to be a way to add protection for these “neighbors” from those who put their self-centered desires and greed ahead of doing what is right.

My time tutoring was a breath of fresh air! I was presented with the ongoing challenge to help young students learn how to use English words like: worse, enough, used to, world, etc., in complete sentences. Fortunately for me we had a number of props at my disposal.   Their snacks of popcorn and strawberries created opportunities for the students to see and understand how words they were given have a place in their vocabulary. An old globe not only gave them a view of the earth, but gave the tutors a lesson in where these young new “neighbors” have lived the 8 to 12 years of their lives. I lack the words to describe the looks on their faces when they gained an appreciation for a new word they could use when trying to communicate.  Let me just say that it was awesome to experience! All the students this week were given the opportunity to use their artistic and writing skills to create thank you notes for the people that donated books they were allowed to select and take home last week. The artwork and written notes covered a broad spectrum of ability, but the one thing that came through loud and clear was their appreciation.

My playwrights from the last few weeks, who have been working on a play about bullying, appeared to be suffering from “spring fever”, and when I said it, one of the older girls said we had “too much chocolate”. I guess some things catch on faster than others. After a couple of gentle reminders that we had work to do and we needed to get back to the script, I went quiet!!! (For those who know me, it was not easy). Suddenly one of the students said, “We are not being respectful”. A teaching moment presented itself and I asked the students to explain what is important to them when they are having a conversation with someone. The list included: look at the person, allow the other person to speak, not interrupt, listen to what the person is saying, ask for clarification.  These were some of the points the students brought up…..a list that is really good for all of us to keep in mind. One of the students who had not commented, suddenly blurted out, “don’t have attitude”. Another student clamored,” you are retarded” and yes, another teaching moment presented itself.  We had the opportunity to explore the hurtful impact that words can have on “our neighbor” and many other words that some people use and should not. This, along with the other learnings stated above, have given me pause through the week to think about and explore how we can add a “VALUES” section to our summer program. Tutoring affords us the opportunity to help our children master reading, writing and mathematics, but also can plant seeds for how to grow and live in peace and love with “our neighbor”.  And I know that we will get back to the play.


Onward Journey III

The Journey Continues

            How often do we cross paths with beautiful people and never notice? I have thought about that a lot this week as I reflect on the time I spent with the Refugee Network. One day I had the pleasure, frustration, and joy to work with a boy on my right and a girl on my left, both of these sweet children, 5 years old. The young boy wanted to work on coloring, as he informed me that “in his grade there is no homework”, so I asked him what he would like to draw. “I don’t know” was his comment. Trying to be a good tutor, I suggested a horse? a field? an ocean?  He looked up with big eyes and said, “What does an ocean look like?” For those of you reading this, keep in mind, we are in San Diego, California, and I would suspect, not much more than 5 miles from the ocean from where we were sitting. (New arrivals, like these children and their families, have no car, money or way to “go to the beach”.)  The frustration for me increased as the little girl on my left wanted equal attention.  She had the demanding task of finding the sounds in words listed on what must’ve been 15 sheets of pictures. We were thrown for a loop with the letter “J” and a picture of a Jeep. She saw it as a car and between endeavoring to outline the ocean and explain that a Jeep is a type of car, my head was spinning. I won’t bore you with the numerous opportunities that presented themselves during that hour, but it was challenging, refreshing and eye-opening regarding the tremendous need for additional volunteers to work with these beautiful children who find themselves in a strange place with a strange language and NOTHING that resembles where they were in their life’s journey a year or more ago.

I was relieved after about an hour with my young children, as the older children who I had been helping with their play last week, wanted to do more with it. After a brief review of their respective parts, one of the students/actors suggested that we needed to add to the play, a scene of what actually happened in the situation they were acting out, so that they could hear themselves replay what actually happened. What these young people brought up was that they had been only concerned about themselves and not about their friends. One of them said, “Why don’t we talk about different ways we could have resolved our differences about which movie to see”. I smiled, listening intently as these five

11 and 12-year-olds came up with a list that would have made any marriage counselor proud to hear. Needless to say, the play is developing nicely, and I am sure it will be enjoyable for the parents to see, but I believe the lessons they are learning and teaching me, will live on long after the curtain closes.

            Each and every encounter with these young people continues to offer superb opportunities to grow and appreciate the resiliency of the human. These children are full of questions, excitement and a desire to be heard and appreciated, just like we are! The younger children really need one-on-one tutoring to help them better understand the concepts that they are being taught in the public schools they attend. More work on the basics…their colors, writing their letters, the sounds of the letters in the alphabet, and the difference between NO and KNOW. This experience continues to open windows into my own childhood, growing up in an ethnic neighborhood, where every adult was called aunt or uncle to show respect, and every neighbor was there for the next person when help was needed. The refugee community certainly mirrors that way of life and hopefully will result in rapid assimilation into the communities where they live and grow. This summer we are going to find a way to afford these young children the opportunity to meet the ocean.

            One day this week I had the pleasure of working with a young man who is a junior in high school. He had asked me to review a paper that he had written. The paper included four poems in which he clearly had poured out his heart. The poems were full of his appreciation and love for the support and value the Refugee Network and all the tutors have provided him. This young man told me that he and his family left the refugee camp and came to San Diego nine years ago. He wants to improve his grades so that he will be accepted into the Army.  He believes being in the service will help him mature and offer financial help in his getting a college education. He dreams of being a writing teacher one day. I can say that his poems are a great start in that direction.

            You have read a lot about the children, truly beautiful, and a gift to this world, and I pray that we can continue to help them grow and learn in this new world we all live in.  Let me also share with you a bit about the valuable volunteers.  Many have supported the organization for years; others are high school students; a number of college students returning for their summer break, started with the program when they were in high school.

The four case managers for the organization are very special and gifted people. Each of them came here as refugees and made the transition and now have families of their own. They exude an understanding of the challenges encountered by new arrivals in this land. They have the language skills and cultural awareness to help the families get their feet on the ground and find the services that they need. These Beautiful People know and understand the various idiosyncrasies of the community, and those of each individual person. This week at the food bank, where twice a week the Network is able to get as much food as we can gather up and transport in one pickup truck and maybe a car, I witnessed and experienced the knowledge and passion they have to serve others at work.   They know the dietary needs and likes of literally hundreds of families that rely on the fruits and vegetables that we are able to garner on their behalf. Not only were they able to work circles around me physically, and I bet I heard one or the other say 100 times, “Tom, don’t try to lift that, it’s too heavy for you by yourself”, care, concern and love for fellow human beings is constantly manifested by these fine people.  I have to say that when I looked at the three pallets of food we gathered for loading into the vehicles, I thought there is no way! I must admit these amazing people loaded both vehicles like master jigsaw puzzle assemblers. I don’t believe they could have added one more string bean, and when we looked and saw that there were a few boxes of potatoes that could not make the journey back to St. Luke’s, they were devastated. They convinced the man who manages the distribution center, to set the potatoes aside to be picked up next week with the new batch of fruits and vegetables. Back at St. Luke’s, the food was separated meticulously into portions for 45 families depending upon the size of the families.  The distribution of the food to the families was a period full of gratitude and appreciation. Before the day was done, these amazing case managers also delivered food to those who were unable to come to the distribution center due to health or transportation reasons.  And they repeated this process for another group of refugees later in the week! 

            I have been blessed with the opportunity to cross paths with many beautiful people.  I look forward to continuing to meet, share and work with these people, using the gifts God has gifted me. This week the Network was able to feed about 100 families and next week 100 different families will receive food. When we are able to identify a second truck, we will be able to increase the number of people we feed, and with additional tutors, we will be able to help these beautiful children that much more. Yes, “the harvest is plentiful and the labor is few”, but the people who are involved with the Refugee Network,  share their gifts with these beautiful people that got their start in places that were not as open and loving as this community I am proud to be part of.