Sunday, November 2, 2014

Celebrating the Saints

November 2, 2014
Emmanuel Lutheran Church
All Saints Sunday
Matthew 5:1-12

   Good morning! For those of you who I haven’t had the chance to meet yet, I am Pastor John’s daughter, Sarah.  I am “the one who was away for the year”.  And I am here today to share a little bit about what I was doing in Malaysia, how I ended up there, and to share with you how I see today’s celebration of All Saints Sunday through the lens of this past year. 

   To start off, let me tell you a little background on the program I was a part of this past year.  I served as a missionary in Malaysia through the Lutheran church’s Young Adults in Global Mission (or YAGM) program.  The YAGM program accepts young adults, ages 21-29 for a one year transformational journey to learn from and walk alongside our global partners in faith around the world.  This year, there are 8 countries of service: Mexico, Argentina/Uruguay, United Kingdom, Hungary, Jerusalem/West Bank, Rwanda, Madagascar, and South Africa.  You’ll notice I didn’t list Malaysia in that group, and you heard correctly; this year there are no YAGM participants in Malaysia due to difficulties in obtaining visas. 
   As a part of the YAGM program, participants are asked to raise approximately $4,000 to go toward the $11,000 total it costs to support one YAGM for one year.  I am so thankful to be speaking to you today as a missionary who was supported by all of you.  You helped make this year possible for me and for my fellow YAGM by supporting me in many ways, especially financially.  To have this family who I only recently met upon my return step forward to support a girl they had never met means more to me than I can express, so I want to make sure you all leave today knowing how truly grateful I am for each of you, for your love, prayers, communication, and financial support. 
The ELCA practices a model of mission called “accompaniment”.  This means that missionaries are present as much to learn as they are to teach, that there is a mutual companionship among the ELCA and global partner churches, and that missionaries are not alone in their work, that they are connected and supported through the ELCA and it’s companions worldwide.  The church I was affiliated with while in Malaysia was the Basal Christian Church of Malaysia (BCCM), a member of the Lutheran World Federation.  And as an aside, today, according to my BCCM calendar that I am still using, is “Mission Sunday” in the BCCM.  So our brothers and sisters in Malaysia are celebrating their role in God’s Mission today, and for that we also give thanks.  YAGM are placed in communities and given site placements to live and work alongside our partners.  I was living in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.  If you know of the island of Borneo, that was my home this past year.  And yes, it was hot.  I had 2 site placements, in the mornings I worked at a BCCM kindergarten and in the afternoons, I worked at Sabah Cheshire Home, a non-governmental non-profit organization that serves as a home for adults with disabilities.  I lived a few blocks from my school and church with my landlady Mrs. Soong. 
I think the best way for me to describe the culture of Malaysia to you would be just a look at an average day for me.  I lived in a mostly Chinese Buddhist neighborhood.  I walked to kindergarten, a Christian Chinese mission school, and went from kindergarten to Cheshire Home, where I worked with mostly Muslim women.  Just in my three main hubs, there was so much diversity.  If I took the bus into town, I passed 1 Chinese Buddhist pagoda, 2 Christian churches, and 1 Islamic mosque.  And if you want to talk about food, which I could tell you about for days, there was cultural representation of Chinese, Indian, Thai, and indigenous in any given shopping area.  Ethnically and religiously, Malaysia is incredibly diverse, and this diversity is a normal reality of life.  For any holiday, you could find a host inviting their friends of other religions or ethnicities to experience a celebration that is so sacred to them.  The beauty of diversity is a lesson I will be forever grateful for from Malaysia. 

So now you have a little background on the YAGM program, where I was this year, and Malaysian culture.  I could talk about any of these for much longer, but for the sake of trying to beat my dad’s record, I’ll move on to the celebration for which we are gathered today: All Saint’s Sunday.  The reason we celebrate All Saints Sunday is to remember those members of the church universal who have gone before us, who have impacted our life and faith.  On this day, we think of those who have passed from this earth.  Remembering people like my Grandma Derrick, who in her life taught me everything from how to make the perfect peach pie to who to read “Go, Dog, Go!” until I was tired of it (which was never)  I would be silly to think that Grandma’s lessons taught in the kitchen and on the couch didn’t lead me to appreciate and seek to love, know, and serve those I encounter.  Surely, Grandma’s life of service in many ways influenced the course my life has taken. 
But, I would like to broaden this celebration to anyone, even the living saints, to celebrate those in our lives, present and past, who have lead us into a greater understanding of who Jesus is through who they were or are on this earth.  The “cloud of witnesses” that Paul talks about in Hebrews includes those past, present, and those who are yet to come.  God works in our lives through a network of people so great that we may not even recognize it.  In this past year alone, I am aware of the saints of this and other churches who supported me, family, professors, and coworkers who lead me to discern YAGM as a call by God.  And, I am aware of countless saints I encountered while in Malaysia who very literally helped me survive at times.  And there are so many more who I am unaware of, people who God has worked through to guide, correct, and teach me more of who God is and who God is calling me to be. 
I mentioned my landlady earlier, Mrs. Soong.  Mrs. Soong is a saint. 
This year started off really hard.  In a sense, I was mourning- mourning the loss of a lot that was familiar and comfortable.  I was away from my family and friends, I had a language barrier in many but not all places, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do at work or how to ask for help.  One evening, I came home and didn’t have much to do.  So I sat with Mrs. Soong while she watched the news in Chinese, and she translated for me, telling me what was happening in the world.  Mrs. Soong had a serious intuition.  I hardly ever had to tell her what I was feeling or experiencing, she always just seemed to know.  I had spent that day sitting and observing in my kindergarten class, and then had spent most of my afternoon with one particular resident at Cheshire Home throwing a balloon back and forth.  I hadn’t done much.  As we sat watching TV, eating crackers, Mrs. Soong looked at me and said, “You’ll get busy.  But for now, I’m really happy to have you here with me.”  In that moment, I felt understood, recognized and cared for.  Feelings I didn’t even know I was seeking at the time.  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” 

True to Mrs. Soong’s promise, I got busy.  December was a wild month.  We had non-stop Christmas caroling and Christmas parties.  So of course, as tends to happen when you’re going, going, going, I got sick.  If we want to talk about unpleasant things, I’d put having a fever in a tropical country on that list.  I woke up and was very aware very quickly that I was not feeling well at all.  When I’m sick, I cry.  It’s an unfortunate reaction.  I walked downstairs crying, and Mrs. Soong emerged from the kitchen.  Through tears, I told her I was sick, and she said, “Hey! Don’t cry.  I love you!” she sent me up to my bed, and kept porridge and water coming to my room until my fever went away and I was well.  While I was on the opposite side of the world from my original home of Lexington, SC, I learned in that moment that I have a home in Malaysia, and I have a grandma who loves me and will take care of me.   “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Like most parts about life in Malaysia, I could talk about Mrs. Soong for days.  But what I want you to know most about her is that she showed me a clearer picture of who Jesus is.  I don’t know if you caught this earlier, but Mrs. Soong was only my landlady.  The only responsibilities she had were to provide me with a place to stay and to address any problems that arose within the house.  But she did much more than that.  She comforted me, fed me, talked with me, drove me to church… she showed me incredible hospitality, treating me as family. 

Today’s Gospel reading is familiar to us as “The Beatitudes”.  The beatitudes recognize the weak, the suffering, and the poor in spirit and give hope to the brokenness in this world.  But the beatitudes also serve as a charge to the saints. 
It is the saints who comfort us when we mourn, who give us a clearer picture of the kingdom of heaven when we are lacking in spirit, who demonstrate righteousness and mercy.  The saints show us who God is by actively demonstrating the love and grace of God through their everyday lives.  They teach us but they also empower us to go and do likewise in this world.  When I would come home feeling empty, spending time with Mrs. Soong left me renewed and ready to enter back into a hectic day at school or challenging day at Cheshire Home.  Because of Mrs. Soong’s love and hospitality, I feel more empowered and driven to practice love and hospitality to those I encounter. 

The Beatitudes teach us about the kingdom of heaven.  Filled with grace, God’s blessing is to those who we would least expect, and God’s promise is to use the least likely.  This year, I was wrapped in prayer and support by family, friends and church families- some who I will never meet.  I was welcomed, cared for, and comforted by new friends, newfound family, and new church families in Malaysia.  Throughout the year I was both teaching and learning, helping when I could and being helped more than I expected.  This, friends, is a look into the kingdom of heaven- God using the most unexpected of people in the most unexpected of places to reveal God’s self in this world. 
Today, I remember Mrs. Soong as one among countless saints.  And we give thanks for the work of all the saints in this church, in our lives, and in this world- those who teach us how to live as Christ calls us and charge us to go into the world to do the same. 


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Finding Words

I haven't looked at my pictures since I got home.  I had this realization tonight as I confronted the fact over yogurt with my cousin, that I have been avoiding thinking too much about Malaysia, about this year, since I've been home.  Yes, I have been answering the surface, general questions I am asked in passing, and even realized on certain occasions that there are holes in my life now, things that are missing.  But, I haven't thought long and hard about the day-to-day year of my life that just happened.  I think it is my defense mechanism, to divert my attention rather than to face a lot of feelings that come with transitions, with saying "goodbye".

I have found on many occasions in the past 6 weeks, that I am deeply unsettled by events and words I encounter.  I can't always name why, and that frustrates me.  Reentering groups of people, finding that a year of life hasn't just happened for me, but for everyone, has brought with it simultaneous excitement and anxiety.

In a word: life is gray.  And I don't mean gray in the sense of gloomy, but I mean gray in that it isn't black or white.  It isn't only joyful or only sad.  It isn't only calm or only anxious.  Yes, this applies to my life right now, but one thing I have learned this year is that life is gray.  Simultaneously, positive and negative exist, and we cannot always separate the two.  Who remembers these sweet things that were trendy in the 90's?

The yin yang is pretty good description of how I see life right now.  Used in Buddhism, it describes light and dark, existing together, sometimes even within the other.  Our YAGM group had the chance to learn some history and practices of Chinese religion while we were in Hong Kong for one of our country retreats, and this is a lesson that has stuck with me since.  In our world and in our lives, there exists both great joy and great sadness, together.  Am I happy to be back with my family and friends in America?  Of course.  But at the same time, I absolutely miss the life I had come to know and love in Malaysia.  Both feelings exist together, at the same time.

Looking back at how certain words have unsettled me since being back, I think it is because we are oversimplifying life.  We are quickly characterizing and categorizing as only "good" or "bad", and not giving space to acknowledge the presence of both.  I don't miss Malaysia because it was an ideal, happy-go-lucky land of joy.  I miss it because I lived in the joy and the pain at once, because it was a real year of gray life.  Looking at life as gray, I think, slows our desire to jump to generalizations, grants our desire to give and accept grace, and to love more freely.

Tonight, I looked through my pictures.  I saw the faces of my family, my friends, my students.  I felt extreme gratitude and extreme pain.  And that is where I'm at.

Monday, June 23, 2014


I miss the call to prayer.  I miss the beautiful sound of singing, calling believers to prayer finding me throughout Malaysia.  It took some getting used to, I won't lie.  Especially when I found myself spending the night especially close to a mosque, the morning call would wake me up at times.  But, I grew to find a lot of peace in the constant reminder to pray.  Even if not from "my" religion, I found at times the call to prayer would remind me that I too, was in need of prayer.  

Fun Fact: I learned this year that the call to prayer is not a recording.  In each mosque, there is a person chanting the call to prayer 5 times a day.
Halal, the regulations Muslims had on their diet (similar to "kosher" for Jews) became something I grew accustomed to observing by default.  "Serve no pork" signs were in the windows of many shops in Malaysia.  Though many Chinese shops served pork, the majority of restaurants I ate at and products I bought in grocery stores were Halal.  Malay food, often called "Makanan Islam" might be some of the most delicious food I've had.  (I could write a blog on the food I miss from Malaysia... but I digress.)

Temples, mosques, and churches weren't uncommon.  As I took the bus into town, I would pass Chinese Buddhist pagodas and temples, a few mosques, and the BCCM KK church as well as the Anglican church.   All together, sprinkled throughout town.  

A Buddhist Temple in Singapore
When I found out I was serving in Malaysia, I had just finished my senior capstone on interfaith reconciliation.  When I learned that Malaysia was as religiously diverse as it was, I was so excited to be a part of dialogues and interfaith efforts.  Reflecting on this year, however, that intentional interaction didn't happen, or at least wasn't incredibly common where I was serving.  However, what I did live among was interfaith cooperation.  Religious diversity is a reality of life in Malaysia.  People are genuinely friends with those of different faiths.  For religious holidays, there were open houses where the host invited their friends of all faiths to be a part of the celebration.  It doesn't scare people that a mosque is being built down the street, because they know Muslims... they have Muslim friends, therefore a mosque is a place of worship and not a threat.  Granted, there are interfaith conflicts, especially within politics, but on the ground, people usually are friends and respect one another. 

The Kota Kinabalu City Mosque
Aside from the people (and the food), the diversity of life this year is what I will miss the most and is what I am more anxious to arrive back to in America.  The pictures I have shared of mosques and temples or stories I have shared of interfaith experiences people have commented on as "beautiful" and "a wonderful experience".  But I wonder what the reactions would be if these pictures I posted and stories I shared were from the US.  It is my fear that the reaction wouldn't be as positive.  Why is there such negativity associated with what is "different"?  And why are "different" experiences only ok when they are far far away?  I think the reason I have seen the temples and mosques, the orange robes of Buddhist monks and the hijabs worn by Muslim women as beautiful and exciting is because it is not a reality where I come from.  People who are not Christian in the US have to down-play their faith.  Muslim women have to get used to not wearing their hijab because of the harassment that comes with it.  Towns put up fights when a mosque is built because the call to prayer violates "city noise ordinances".  Festivals and ceremonies of Buddhism and Hinduism are seem as uncivilized.  And all these feelings and actions are justified because we are "one nation under God."  

A Buddhist Temple in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
This year has taught me that my faith is what calls me to be loving and welcoming to my neighbor, whoever that may be.  My faith cannot justify discrimination, it just can't.  The discomfort or even dislike I feel when in the presence of someone or something that is new or different is not a conviction of my faith, but a product of sin.  And there have most definitely been times when I have had to work to overcome those feelings of discomfort, they aren't always natural responses.  

It is my prayer that those living in the US, regardless of their faith, can be open with who they are, and loved and welcomed for it.  It is my hope that one day, interfaith dialogue will be seen as unnecessary not because of ignorance but because of rich interfaith understanding and celebration.  It is my dream that people of all faiths can be voices for one another, that faith will be something that unites and not divides.  

I'm coming home, America, and I want to see change.  

Sunday, June 8, 2014


Visas, volunteer visas, tourist visas, immigration, border-runs...

These are all words that have become a pretty regular addition to my vocabulary this year.  While serving in Malaysia, every 90 days our group had to leave the country so that we could be reissued a tourist visa upon reentry.  Now I am in Thailand, and because I was issued a 30-day tourist visa when I arrived, I need to leave the country before Tuesday to avoid overstaying my visit, travel to a bordering country to obtain a volunteer visa from a Thai embassy, then travel back into Thailand to finish out my time of service.

While I've grown weirdly comfortable with the idea of traveling to renew a visa, I've also grown to feel a bit of anxiety when I'm in an airport these days.  I had a huge fear of flying before this year, but I've flown so much that the fear of the actual airplane has subsided.  I've noticed that the anxiety only occurs from the time I step into the airport until the time I clear immigration.  Those men and women hold a lot of power, and even though there is nothing illegal about our travels, there is a certain anxiety that comes with knowing your fate of departing and reentering the country lies in someone else's hands.

I was supposed to leave today to go to Laos to obtain a volunteer visa.  However, I LOVE to have a medical adventure and decided to come down with the flu instead.  Seriously, who gets the flu in June??  Not the point.  After a hospital visit yesterday and today, I received a medical letter to immigration requesting my stay be extended so that I can fully recover before I fly off to do visa business.

All these situations, as positive or negative as they have been, have been voluntary.  I willingly entered into this year, and if anything, the color of my passport (or the fact that I have a passport at all) has made a lot of immigration situations a heck of a lot easier for me than they are for other people.  I've felt conflicted many times this year about my anxieties surrounding immigration.  The unsettledness I feel in an airport is certainly real, but I can easily remove myself from the situation if I needed to.  There is a place that is safe for me to go back to.  But what about the people who don't have that?  What about the people whose reasons for crossing borders are completely different from mine?  Today, I could receive a letter requesting permission to stay in a country because I have the flu, but what about people who are sick in a country but can't even receive the healthcare to know what is wrong with them?

Borders exist, and the movement between those borders is happening more and more.  People are moving in and out of those borders for more reasons than we know.  And I don't have answers to the ever-growing question of immigration.  In the ways that immigration has consumed conversations and thoughts of mine at times this year, I cannot even begin to imagine the ways in which it affects those whose lives are so dependent on where they find themselves, and whose hands their documentation falls into.  Tonight, I am especially mindful of those who are away from their home-country or who are stateless, as well as those who make the decisions regarding their fate.  There is corruption in this world, but there are also beacons of light.  And it is my prayer that the light can outshine any darkness.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Let's flash back to my first experience at Lutheridge.  No, it was not my first summer on staff as a counselor, but instead was the summer of 2001 I believe, when I was 9 years old.  I went to camp with a friend the same week that my dad was taking his confirmation group up to camp for a week.  I had a top bunk, my counselor's name was Courtney, and I was in Frye cabin in Pioneer A.  I was excited, but as is a tendency in my life, I was a bit... or possibly extremely anxious.  The entire week of camp I cried and cried.  I made myself sick and did all that I could so that they would send me home because I did NOT want to be there.  It wasn't that camp wasn't fun... I specifically remember enjoying the pool, going to crafts, and singing songs.  I was just extremely homesick.  I would like to take this opportunity to formally apologize to Courtney, wherever you may be... I had to have been the most difficult camper EVER.  Bless your heart.  But your efforts weren't for nothing.  I like to think that you sewed some seeds that just took a little while to pop their heads up.  I was so sure that my camping days we over at the conclusion of that week.

Let's fast forward to November of 2009.  I was a freshman at Presbyterian College, and as I like to do, I was planning ahead for what my summer would look like.  I had thought about working at a camp, but wasn't sure where to apply or how the whole "outdoors" thing would go for me.  Despite all of this, something lead me to apply to Lutheridge.  I had my interview (after being very concerned about how to look professional yet earthy), I was offered a position as a counselor for the summer, and off I headed to spend the summer of 2010 as a counselor.  As we went through training, I was taught all sorts of procedures and techniques for all kinds of camper situations.  As we talked about homesick campers, I had flashbacks to Courtney living all of those out.  She was better than I realized.  The real learning came from week to week, as I laughed, cried, was challenged, and grew from all I was experiencing.

My first summer at Lutheridge left me wanting more of what I had just experienced, so I returned for another summer as a counselor and the following summer on senior staff.  Each summer brought with it stories of joy and stories of challenges, but absolutely every summer opened my eyes and lead me to places I did not see myself before the summer of 2010.  Here are just a few ways my life was changed by my time at camp, lessons I learned, and why I believe it is such an important ministry of the church...

Absolutely my faith was significantly challenged and strengthened in my 3 summers on staff at Lutheridge.  I was forced, in the most lovingly of ways, to rely on God and God's people as I navigated situations that I had absolutely no clue about.  I learned the beauty and support that exists in community, the joy of celebrating in community and being able to be honest in your struggles.  Some of my dearest friends I made while on staff.  I learned to trust the tugs on your heart.  Those 3 summers were huge as I discerned where God was calling me to be in this world.  

I learned that the church is much, much bigger than my home congregation.  There is a much greater body outside of what I knew in Lexington, South Carolina at work.  For starters, I was exposed to other congregations, pastors, and members of congregations of the ELCA.  I learned from their styles of ministry and grew in my understanding of what worship is, what "Lutheran" is, and how we are all connected as the Body of Christ.  Another piece to this exposure was the realization of the ministries and opportunities that exist in our church.  The ELCA is doing awesome things on community, state, national, and international levels.  Outdoor ministry is one of the ways the church is in action, and I was loving my time there, so I became curious what else was out there.  Through people I had worked on staff with, I heard about Young Adults in Global Mission.  Through discernment (much of which came from talking with friends and fellow staff members from camp) I knew I wanted to engage with the global church and see what else there was to learn in this great network of Holy Spirit wonderfulness!  And the rest is history...

Wether you're Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist... be a part of your greater church!  There exists amazing opportunities to serve, learn, and grow!  Parents, send your kids to a week of camp this summer.  You never know where one week at camp may lead them.

And, as a personal plug, I think Lutheridge may just be the best option for your child:

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Day in the Life

Hey there friends.  I started this mission this morning complete with taking pictures and writing down times and activities... then somewhere around 10:30 I lost track of the details :)  But, here is what my day looked like today.

6:05- Wake up, but press snooze
6:25- Finally get out of bed and get ready for school
6:50- Get picked up for school by Auntie Jenny who works in the office.  I used to walk to school until about November, then rainy season started and Auntie Jenny offered to pick me up since I am on her route to school.  Rainy season is LONG over, but she has been so kind to keep picking me up every morning.
7:00- Arrive to school.
7:10- Eat breakfast with Teacher Ginny and Teacher Leong.  They are so sweet to alway feed me!
7:15- Children start to arrive, walking in and greeting every teacher in the classroom.  So this morning, "Good morning Teacher Ginny, good morning Teacher Leong, good morning Teacher Sarah."  Children are dropped off and come straight to the classroom, so they play with toys until the day starts.
7:45- The bell rings, children still gathering.
8:00- Tidy up the toys and take a water break.  It is so important to keep kids hydrated here, I mean, it is somewhere around 8789 degrees.  All the kids come to school with a water bottle and we take breaks throughout the day to make sure they stay hydrated and healthy!
8:10- Go to the toilet and line up for singing time
8:15- Singing time.  Recently, we have been practicing for the upcoming Praise Songs competition.  Each class has a song they are learning and will have a school-wide competition in a few weeks.  Teacher Ginny's class is singing "The B-I-B-L-E"!
9:00- Today we had a birthday!  The family of the birthday girl, Chloe came to school with a cake and treat bags for the children, so we sang "happy birthday", ate cake, and took pictures!
9:45- A nurse came to fetch the children of Love 1 to get their teeth checked.  I'll explain, because this is not an ordinary kindergarten activity :)  The local hospital provides free teeth checks, cleanings, and I think fillings once a year.  So today, I accompanied 7 of our kids to get their teeth checked out.  They were so good!  Hopefully they couldn't sense my fear of the dentist... I tried to keep it positive.  The hospital came and converted our "TV Time" room into a small clinic and had chairs set up to see the children.  Once we were finished, we thanked our new friends for cleaning our teeth and headed back to the classroom.
10:50- Caught the 7 kids up on the work they missed while they were being brave tooth warriors... this included coloring and pre-writing activities.
11:10- Took some pictures for mother's day and practiced our mother's day song! (Apparently mother's day is international... or at least observed in Malaysia)
11:35- Packed up, final toilet break, and sang the "goodbye song".
11:45- Bell rings, and parents pick up their children.
12:30- Arrive at Cheshire Home and eat lunch.
1:00- Malay and English class.  The group I have been teaching is a part of Cheshire Home's economic empowerment program.  We are partnered with Asian Tourism International College to offer a pastry skills certification course to adults with disabilities and single mothers, giving them a skill so that they can be employed in society.  It is a really fantastic program.  This batch all has hearing disabilities, so they have been wonderful enough to teach me some sign language and all around come up with fun ways to communicate.  Today, we had our final assessment since I am leaving.  From what I saw on the English papers, they did great!  After they all finished, we took a final group photo :(
2:00- Kunie, the most wonderful driver at Cheshire Home was kind enough to take me to run a few errands.  I needed to get pictures printed for my children at school and for the bakery students I've been working with, so we drove all around Damai and found a photo printing place (that is located inside a garden shop... no wonder it was hard to find). I then picked up some milk and butter to make cookies with Mrs. Soong's granddaughters tonight.
3:00- Returned to Cheshire, cleaned out my drawers at work, helped draft and edit a letter and presentation.
4:00- Go out into the main living space of Cheshire to help with the patchwork.  The staff has an ongoing project of a patchwork quilt.  I have gotten to help with it some this year, and it is always a really good time to bond with the staff and residents who are around.
4:45-  Go home.  Kunie, the wonderful driver of Cheshire Home, drives me home each afternoon.
5:00- Walk down to the shops from my house to see if they have envelopes at the store that sells stationary.  Unfortunately, it was closed.  However, the trip wasn't a total loss.  I stopped at the produce shop that is owned by the mother of one of our day care residents at Cheshire to see if they had any papaya slices, but they didn't.  However, I got some watermelon, and she didn't make me pay.  So sweet!  So I walked home snacking on my free watermelon, and listening to the sounds of pianos and violins practicing from house to house.  As I walked up to my house, I heard "Hey Teacher Sarah!!" from Jason who lives across the street.  Jason was my student last year.

The rest of the day, I will make cookies with Mrs. Soong's granddaughters, eat porridge that Mrs. Soong made for dinner, and spend time with this wonderful family.  Then, I'll probably be up late working on notes, packing and checking other last minute things off my list.  This place is so wonderful.  I can't believe I'm leaving so soon and leaving this place that feels so normal now, so much like home.
This daily life has taught me a lot, challenged me more than I expected, and made me so thankful for the people and places God has lead me to.  Prayers for closing goodbyes and celebrations in the next few days.  Lots and lots of love from Malaysia.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Power of Words

Lately, well maybe all year, I've been really aware of language.  Language has proved to bring with it some of the biggest joys as well as some frustrations.  It is a good feeling when you can effectively communicate something you're feeling, especially in another language.  Languages surround me this year.  While English is still a part of my daily life, so is Malay, Chinese, and now Malay Sign Language (not the same as American Sign Language).  I'm learning all of these on some level, but am better at communicating in some more than others.

The power of positive language has really encouraged me this year.  This past weekend we had an overnight outing with Cheshire Home.  With 40ish people, there was a lot to do and prepare.  I can be a little awkward at inserting myself into situations, but I really wanted to help the women with the cooking and food preparation for this big group.  So I walked into the kitchen and asked if I could help.  I did some chopping (which I am not good at making things a consistent size), but then I was given the spatulas to the wok.  As I stirred the vegetables and added in sauces, one of our sweet cooks goes "Ah! Sarah pandai sudah!!" (Sarah is clever already)  And I was then welcome to help prepare all weekend long.  That is one example, but I have countless others... Mrs. Soong telling me she loves me when I was sick and crying in December, one of the sweet residents at Cheshire calling me "Auntie" everyday when I see her, hearing "Good morning Teacher Sarah" when students walk in the door.  Words can make you feel so so good.

But language can also tear down and cause hurt.  The words I am talking about are hurtful ones, ones that I feel forget that I am also human.  The most hurtful language I have experienced this year has mostly surrounded race.  I have been called "another species", I have been reminded that I am "so different" from everyone else, I have been told that all white people look the same, so it is hard to pick me out, just to name a few...
While these independently may sound funny or absurd to you, or perhaps like things you have said to reference other races, even jokingly, after hearing them repeatedly and being on the receiving end, they really are not funny.  They are very hurtful.

**(I feel the need to do a really big disclaimer here- This is not characteristic of the majority of people I interact with on a daily basis.  Instead these are isolated incidents.  However, let that show that even one or two people can have a profound impact on the way a person perceives themselves.  Also, the feeling of being white here in Malaysia is something that I have wanted to talk about on a blog or in some way for awhile now.  I would say that usually, I receive comments like "You're so beautiful", "Hi Miss, you're so pretty" if I am just walking down the street... which is endearing but also at times just makes me uncomfortable to constantly be a spectacle.  So, the race comments I receive are across the spectrum, yet still have affected me this year.)

Statements, even if not ill-intended, that are made at the expense of another person really are so hurtful. On the flip side, be encouraging!  If there is a way that you can build someone up, do it!  To quote Kid President, "If you can't think of anything nice to say, you're not thinking hard enough."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lessons Learned

One year ago, I attended the Discernment-Interview-Placement weekend for YAGM.  In the year since, I have learned so much.  I have learned about myself, the world, the church, people, God, and faith... just to name a few.  Here is a small sampling of a list of all I have learned:

1. Vulnerability. Ask for help, admit when you're wrong, and be honest in your experiences.  The ability to share freely these things as well as to rejoice together has resulted in some really deep and meaningful relationships this year.  This is a lesson I am continuing to work on, but one that I am reminded of frequently.

2. I am not needed.  My presence in this country and in my sites is not necessary to anyone's survival or well-being.  I do not bring with me an invaluable skill to this year.  I have had to realize that no one here "needs me".  This was a hard lesson to learn.  I expected to jump in and be put to work right away and be busy all year.  But that just has not been the case.  There are days when I do not have a lot to do, and my main "job" is to just be present, just existing alongside other people.  While this may sound boring, like a waste of my time or skills, I have come to learn that it is just the opposite.  I have learned that it is healthy that my presence here exists in this way.  It is a good thing that no one is depending on me in a way that in my absence, things would fall apart.  I have learned that as humans, we enter into a situation "to do".  My mindset of "doing" has shifted into a mindset of "being".  I have learned about myself from the discomfort I felt in the absence of "work" and I have learned more about people and life in community in the days where my "job" was to sit and listen, talk, or help with small tasks.

3. People make up religions and denominations.  This year has been one of religious diversity.  There is so much religious diversity in Malaysia.  I interact with Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists daily.  Even going into this year, Christianity has looked different than what I have been used to.  The BCCM's theology and worship styles vary in some ways from the traditional Lutheran background I come from.  There is common ground among denominations and even among other religions, but even if there are differences, the people behind the title of "Roman Catholic", "Methodist", "Anglican", "BCCM", "Muslim", "Buddhist" are all people.  Their beliefs shape them into people of faith who above all else want to love and serve their god and their god's people.  Having focused on the differences that separate especially Christian denominations in the past, this year has been a lesson on the value of the people of the church.  I think when you know and appreciate the people you can appreciate and learn from their beliefs even more.

4. I need structure.  Fun fact: I considered myself pretty go with the flow... then I came to Malaysia and realized I was delusional.  Having no set "syllabus" on how to successfully complete this year was a scary realization.  I will say that this desire for structure has not changed, but instead I have learned how to create some order on my own.  I really value the routines I've established, which have made life a lot less overwhelming.

5. I am not ______________.  Be it other YAGMs in Malaysia, YAGMs serving throughout the world, or the volunteers that came before me, there is a huge temptation to compare in this year.  "I'm not as outgoing as _________."  "I'm not as good at Malay as __________."  "__________ did this but I haven't done that yet."  "According to facebook, ________ is just having such a great life and today is really hard for me."  I am Sarah, I have my own strengths and my own weaknesses.  I have my own way of approaching this year.  And I know deep down inside, that people only put the good stuff on facebook, that everyone has struggled in this year in some way.  I'm thankful for the other volunteers serving this year as well as for the ones who have come before me because I am constantly reminded that this is not a one-woman show.  This is a continued relationship, and I am a small small piece to a much greater and beautiful picture of companionship.  The story neither starts nor ends with me, and each individual brings their own abilities to the table.

6. There are a whole lot of people who have the love of God just seeping out of them.  Hospitality, caring for me when I'm sick, quality time, sharing food, smiles and encouraging words have all shown me God's love, faithfulness, and presence in this year.  I could do a whole separate blog on the people in my life, but in short, I could not be more thankful for those whose paths I have crossed this year.

7. Being comfortable with the unknown.  I entered into the YAGM process not knowing what country I would go to.  I then agreed to come to Malaysia not knowing where I would live or what I would be doing.  Then once the year started, there were transitions in leadership, changes in program plans, lots of change and lots of uncertainty.  Being someone who apparently likes structure (see #3) this hasn't been easy for me.  But, as the changes and questions of what's next arise, I have the past to remind me that God is faithful and that I can find peace in the midst of a lot of unknown.

There are more lessons, and I still continue to be challenged by the things I have named here.  When I sat in that room at DIP in Williams Bay, Wisconsin last year, I didn't know what the year ahead held, but I was confident that I was being called to this place.  I think God had and still has a lot for me to learn.  Malaysia, you have taught me a lot, and I will continue to learn from you even after I leave.  For that, I am so thankful.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sudah Makan?

If I had to keep track of the most common Malay words and phrases I hear and use, this is at the top of that list by a lot.  "Sudah" means "already" and "makan" means eat.  When I get to Cheshire Home in the afternoons around 12:30, the first thing I hear is not "apa khabar?" or "how are you?" but instead "Sarah, sudah makan?"  At this point in the day, the answer is not yet, or "belum".  So, I head to eat lunch right away.  I leave the office and walk through a breezeway where staff and residents are sitting to hear variations of, "Makan, Sarah!" Even as I enter the kitchen and grab my plate, I hear, "Sarah, makan!" At first, and even some days still I think to myself, clearly that is what I am doing, I am going to eat right now!  I get my food and sit at the table with a mix of staff and some residents.  Usually, we talk about what we are eating.  "Makan ayam, Sarah!"  (eat chicken, Sarah) "Sedap-can" (it is delicious- right?) "Manis" or "Masin" (sweet or salty)  It shouldn't be a surprise, then that I am most confident in talking about food in Malay.
So I eat my lunch, head back into the office to prepare to teach the language lesson for the day, then emerge around 2:00 back into the living space.  Today for example, there was porridge made from green peas... so so delicious!  "Makan bubur, Sarah!"  So, I grabbed myself a bowl and ate some porridge.  Around 4:00, I noticed a box of bananas, a bowl, and some flour, which can only mean one thing: pisang jamput jamput (that spelling is approximate as I have been told about 15 times what these things are called, only to butcher the word when I try to say it back) "pisang" is banana.  The cooks at Cheshire know the way to my heart.  There was a day when I was sitting in the office listening for the phones when one of the aunties came in to tell me that these little bites of banana heaven were waiting outside.  So today, I pulled up a stool and started helping to peel bananas.  "Saya boleh tolong!" or "I can help!"
I find it easier to talk to people over food.  Conversations begin with me naming foods I know, talking about how much I love them, but them slowly turn into more.  While I don't always understand everything, sharing stories and emotions seems a lot more natural when you are communally peeling bananas.
The question is never "kau lapar?" or "are you hungary?" but instead a more straightforward "sudah makan?", "have you eaten?"  Sometimes I get asked this at like 3:00 in the afternoon, and I haven't quite figured out the appropriate response... Have I eaten?  Recently?  Not really.  Is it meal time?  Also no.  Could I eat something right now?  Maybe, whatcha got??
Tonight as I sat with Mrs. Soong, she asked me if I had eaten.  I told her about the marathon eating that was today at Cheshire and that I wasn't really hungry for dinner.  She still gave me a piece of cake and offered me some bread.
Here, food is just tied to well-being.  There is never a bad time to eat, and always, food can bring a group of people together.  Sharing the food you are cooking is a language of love, and offering someone food is a way to show that you care.  Showing love through food, there's a practice I can say I've gotten on board with.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Maybe I haven't posted in awhile because I've been busier, or maybe its because things don't seem out of the ordinary as often.  Either way, it has been awhile, and there has been lots going on!
As far as work, I've been teaching at both of my sites these days.  In kindergarten I am still assisting in two classes, and am finding myself planning and teaching more and more as time passes.  At Cheshire Home, I've been teaching both English as well as attempting Malay (there is a big key word: attempt) to our bakery students, all of whom are deaf or have a hearing impairment in this batch.  The biggest thing to work on with their Malay is sentence structure, because the way you sign something is not necessarily the way you write it.  While I sometimes don't feel too adequate to teach Malay, I am really appreciative of people I work with who are helping to teach me and helping to teach the class.  Also, I am learning sign language along the way, which is pretty exciting! (It is Malay sign language though, so I'll be interested to see how it compares to American sign language.)
Speaking of teaching, I've also been working with Girl's Brigade (like our Girl Scouts in America) here in KK.  The past few weeks, I have started teaching a first aid class to the girls to help them get a badge for the upcoming badge ceremony.  Last weekend, I helped out with a Girl's Brigade camp on wetlands conservation and learned that KK is home to a pretty beautiful wetlands area!  I'm hoping to do something "very American" with the girls before I leave to do a little cultural exchange, so if you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear from you!
So just work and other activities themselves have kept me busy.  It is nice though to be involved and to learn about yourself, the things that are life-giving and the things that are not so much, what you are good at and where your "growing edges" may be.

There is a twist in the year that many of you may have learned of by now, but I did want to share here, too.  I sent an email to those of you who receive my newsletter about YAGM Malaysia's end-of-service date.  As you may have noticed, be it in my newsletters or through conversations with me or my family, immigration in Malaysia has been a frequent topic in this year's country group.  Unfortunately, we have had volunteers as well as other ELCA personnel in the country flagged by immigration, which means they have either been asked to leave Malaysia for a certain amount of time to prove they are not working here or at least been called into the immigration office to talk with officials.
*I will stop here and say 3 things: 1. We are not in any danger, nor are we breaking any laws in being here.  We are not working in Malaysia/making Malaysian money nor are we here to convert people. Which brings me to number 2. This is not happening because we are Christian.  Immigration policies and procedures are  in a season of crack-down and we happen to be on the end of those more rigid procedures. (Does this sound like seasons of immigration crack-down in America? I think so.)  3. We are not getting kicked out of Malaysia.  This is a YAGM/ELCA decision to conclude due to the uncertainty of the ability for our country group to successfully obtain visas through July.  If you have any questions about this, please message me or email me.  I would be happy to clarify or just talk about it further.*
The length and complexity of what I just shared shows you that this isn't an easy situation.  But, because of this complexity, the YAGM program/ELCA has decided for the YAGM Malaysia service period to conclude in May.  It is hard and unforeseen news.  Therefore, goodbye happenings are starting, closing travel and plans are in the works, and a lot of emotions are happening all at once.  So, in May, our country group will travel to Thailand for our closing country retreat.  From there, our group will spread out a bit.  We have some volunteers traveling back towards the US, some volunteering in Indonesia, some in Hong Kong, and some in Thailand.  I will be one of two volunteers in Bangkok, Thailand serving with a program similar to YAGM through the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I will be there for about 5 weeks, then will make my way back to the US.  I do not want to leave Malaysia in May, however, I am so thankful for the opportunities that have presented themselves to continue service in a new way.

Even though plans, mindsets, and realities of life right now are not at all what I expected or really desired, even though the program is ending early and there have been twists and turns of various kinds throughout this year, life is still so good.  As I hope you get from the first part of this post, I am so happy right now.  Though unexpected and uncontrollable program things have affected this year, they have not and will not negatively impact how I see the year right now nor how I will look back on it in the future.  Much of the sadness in leaving early is simply because this year has been full of joy.  Some days are really hard and some days are just wonderful, and that's life.  And this year of life, I have learned so incredibly much and am thankful for so much.

Thank you for your continued prayers for the program, especially with the upcoming transition.
Peace and Joy!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Impressions: A Malaysian YAGM’s Parents Visit Their Daughter in ‘The Land Below the Wind’

It was a long-anticipated day-and-a-half of enduring several, very long flights and fast, sometimes confusing transfers through several countries’ security checkpoints, before we finally arrived in Kota Kinabalu [‘KK’], Malaysia.  Departing from Charlotte, NC, early New Year’s Eve morning, it was one o’clock in the morning, January 2, when we exited the last of three planes needed for the journey.  After going through customs and immigration, we were greeted by our broadly smiling, wet-eyed daughter, Sarah, who we hadn’t seen since she departed for Kota Kinabalu in August, 2013.

Sarah’s decision to participate in a year-long experience “somewhere on the globe” was a little shocking for us.  Admittedly, when she was assigned to Malaysia, we were a bit down.  It was so far away.  Truth is, we had to get the globe out and find out exactly how far away. When we finally found it, we were even more nervous: it was half-way around the world!  Could she go any further from home?  We didn’t think so. And, in the dark of night, after getting off a third plane from twenty-two hours of flying, we were certain, she couldn’t be farther from home; and neither could we.

First impressions are powerful ones. After meeting so many supportive friends that our daughter has made in KK, our parental anxieties completely vanished. The Lord has provided her so many wonderful support resources in those she lives and works with, as well as worships with weekly and fellowships regularly.  This was repeatedly affirmed by all who helped her host us and introduce us to Malaysian cultures and cuisines. What truly impressed us were people’s  multilingual proficiency and their patience with our ability to only speak English.
Regardless of who we were talking or dining with, we were truly greeted by all with great respect, affection, and hospitality.  

Our two weeks’ adventures enjoyed many Malaysian city sights, sounds, and tastes as well as those experienced in a piece of Malaysia’s famous jungle area on the Katabatanagan River. It is a truly amazing country and people which daily made us so thankful our daughter was led by the Lord to embrace this great faith challenge.  The carefully designed YAGM program has helped not only Sarah grow deeper in her faith, but ours as well.   We were so proud to watch her interact with such confidence with those at her Kindergarten site and her Cheshire Home afternoon assignment working with mentally and physically disabled adults.  Seeing her speak Malay to transact purchases, to order strange but delicious food, to navigate varieties of transportation and her thriving with such self-confidence so far from home made us glad she came to us last year with the crazy notion of spending a year with YAGM performing Christian service somewhere on God’s earth! 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

So Thankful.

Have you noticed that my communication back home has increased exponentially this past week and a half?  Or that I have been posting a lot of things from BuzzFeed? I've had a lot of time on my hands recently.
Well, I didn't quit my sites here in Malaysia. As some of you know, I have been hanging out in KL following our retreat in Hong Kong due to a little infection that required a small stint in the hospital and eventually some minor surgery.  Those who know me well may not be too surprised.  I've had my fair share of strange medical situations.  Nevertheless, being hospitalized in a foreign country was not on my bucket list for this year/ever.  This post isn't really to tell you I was in the hospital, but to express how thankful I am for those who have accompanied me the past week and a half.
First of all, I am incredibly thankful for my sweet, sweet YAGM family. Really, these people are saints.  From lifting my spirits in the ER, to staying nights with me in the hospital with me, to ditching their waterfall day to literally just sit in a hospital room with me, I cannot even put into words how much their presence has meant to me.  Y'all are peaches, and that's an understatement.
As interesting as it was to experience cultural practices translated into the healthcare setting, I am thankful for the doctors and nurses who took lovely care of me.  One of the highs of Malaysian hospital stays: Milo delivered 3 times a day.  America, get it together.  Also, my surgeon looked strikingly similar to Bob Ross, so there's that visual for you. (You know, that painter man on PBS. Google it.)
The lovely couple of Chris and Becca Gamble, aka our country coordinator and his wife have opened up their house for me to recover.  Truly such a blessing to have a home to come into to recover and not have to check into a hotel.
My sweet family back home... bless them. I had regular phone calls to Aunt Ann getting her medical advice and phone calls to Jandy to update them on life.  I feel like there were times when they were maybe more stressed about the situation than I was :)
I am so thankful to have a family back in KK: supervisors, co-workers, friends, church peeps, Mrs. Soong and family to miss, check in with, have supporting me in prayer.  I have missed them dearly the past 2 weeks and am so excited to say that I'LL BE HOME TUESDAY!

I continue to be amazed at the ways in which God is present in the midst of the weird, uncomfortable, and unknown of this year.  Sometimes all you can have is faith.

So thankful. xoxo

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Lessons on Lessons on Lessons

This year is full of learning, and this story involves lots of learning.
At Cheshire Home, we have an economic empowerment program, a piece of which is our bakery classes.  We take in new batches (get it? bakery... batches...) of individuals, either persons with disabilities or single mothers, each year and at the end of their training, they receive a pastry skills certificate and are able to enter the workforce.  This new batch of bakery students are all people who are deaf or have hearing impairments.  A piece of the YAGM's job each year has been to teach the bakery students english.  When I was told about this a few weeks ago, I felt pretty intimidated.  Teaching deaf, sign language students who know Malay, english sounded like a feat.  I've been on the lookout for resources since this assignment, with some luck.  I've been learning some sign language, trying to bridge the multiple language barriers as best as I can.
This week, we have had a volunteer at Cheshire Home from Girl's Brigade, where I also spend some of my time.  She has been awesome, and has jumped right in spending time with the residents and helping out where she is needed.  We both have been learning sign language together from one of the bakery srudents, Haifez.  Today, I needed to do an english assessment with Haifez to see what he knew already, to help me try to gauge where to begin.  Both his Malay and English written assessments had some challenges.  After I was finished, our volunteer asked for a piece of paper and said she was going to work on teaching Haifez English and Malay.  I gave it to her, skeptical of what could be done spur of the moment and in one afternoon.  I went into the office to continue my research on how to teach english to people who are deaf.  I researched without much luck, and emerged from the office to find Haifez spelling through sign language and on paper colors, shapes, and question words in english.  I was pretty impressed, as well as humbled.
A lesson I've learned about myself this year is how badly I want to know what I am doing before I begin.  New flash to myself and the rest of the world: I have absolutely no idea what I am doing this year.  I can research all I want, I can try to plan all I want, but until I actually go and try, I will never fail, succeed, or learn.  Which is far more easily said than done, but I am incredibly thankful for the teachers in my life this year, like high school volunteers, who remind me that the effort is what matters.  That just by trying, something will happen.  If you see a need, go for it.  Just researching doesn't change a thing, but acting does.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

How's that title for some Chinese?? :) I'm learning. I know this is what you say to people to wish them a happy and prosperous new year, but I'm not sure of the exact translation. Maybe one of my Chinese pals can help me out.
Chinese New Year has been in full force since about the time Christmas wrapped up.  Stands set up selling decorations, window displays of red clothing, Chinese New Year songs playing in the malls, lanterns hung along streets and businesses.  It has made me very excited for this new holiday, personally.  (I'm still debating buying a lion dance head to bring back with me to use with any children I work with in the future, but realize this is about the least practical thing to pack ever)  So, lots of excitement, lots of red.
Today, at kindergarten, we had a school-wide assembly, the high of which was probably the lion dancers.  Y'all, it was wild!  I was going to show you a video, but as we all know, my internet leaves a lot to be desired, so here's a picture or two. I was very concerned for some of the acrobatics involved in the dances, but the dancers survived, the kids (mostly) enjoyed it (there were some scared children), and I feel another step closer to being CNY cultured.
Loving the lions, getting real close and personal

Principal Evelyn and I

The big emphasis of CNY is family.  Each night of CNY, there are different sides of the family to visit. New Year's Eve is the reunion dinner, New Year's Day is to visit the father's side of the family, Day 2 is to visit the mother's side of the family, all the while visitations to friends and other family members' houses are going on.  It sounds like lots of fellowship and lots of food... aka the key to any good holiday in my book.  I'm excited!  I already have pretty much every meal/non-meal time the first 3 days booked up, so I'm very thankful for those who have invited me to be a part of this holiday with them!  Tonight, I got home from Cheshire, and Mrs. Soong had already closed the gate, which is odd.  So I got inside and asked why, she told me that the other 2 girls who live here have gone home for CNY so it was just us.  Which was great, because I got to catch up and eat the sandwich I made for dinner with one of my favorite people in Malaysia/ever.  As we sat and talked, Mrs. S asked me my plans for CNY.  I listed off what all I had so far.  She asked what I was doing for dinner on Friday night, and I realized that my plans Friday actually do end around 4 or 5.  She then told me that I could plan on eating dinner with her on Friday, the first night of CNY.  Of course, in typical Mrs. Soong fashion, she told me that if I got invited somewhere else, I should go, but I was welcome to eat with her that night if I wanted to.  I would love to eat dinner on the first night of CNY, the night that is dedicated to visiting with the father's side of the family, with a woman who has become much more than a landlady this year, and really does remind me of my dad's mom, Grandma in a lot of ways!
Y'all can count on pictures and updates from the next 2 weeks of my life (yes, CNY lasts 2 weeks).  In the mean time, I'll be enjoying time with new friends and family, lion and dragon dances, food on food on food, and ringing in the year of the horse! Selamat Tahun Baru Cina! (Happy Chinese New Year!)