Friday, May 8, 2015

My Friend and Kindred Spirit

Dr. Chris Perez and Dr. Debbie Erickson
Let me tell you about my friend, Dr. Debbie. I was immediately drawn to Debbie because she, like me, is a haole (Caucasian). We attended the same church where we were the ethnic minority. Debbie met her Chamorro husband, Chris, (Chamorro is the name for the native people of Guam) while they were both at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical School. Unlike many (most?) of us, Debbie willingly left the land where she was raised and moved with her husband to the other side of the world where she adapted to a culture not her own. When I moved to Guam, Debbie was one of the first people to befriend me and invite my family into her home. During the course of the four years I worked on Guam, Debbie and Chris were incredibly kind to our family. It didn’t take long for me to notice some marked cultural differences that were not easy for me to adjust to. When I asked Debbie how she handled these distinct cultural differences, she responded in an incredibly gracious way; her response was that she chose to give up her own system/comfort out of love for her husband and out of love for the people of Guam. Clearly, she held no resentment, even though in her characteristic honest way she acknowledged that not all the differences were easy for her.

My husband and I were working with Micronesian islanders from the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau who were attending Pacific Islands University on Guam. 90% of our students came from families of subsistence farmers/fishermen; they had no money to speak of and no health insurance. Despite unimaginable odds, these students were the cream of the crop and had miraculously managed to pass the TOEFL (English language proficiency exam) and the entrance exam into our accredited college. You know the saying, “One bad apple spoils the bunch?” Sadly, our students suffered a lot of discrimination because of the misbehaviors/crimes of a few people of their same ethnicity living on Guam. One place where discrimination was prevalent was within the medical community. Dr. Debbie and Dr. Chris were very aware of the misbehavior/crimes of the few, but never did they confuse a bad apple for the bunch. They showed nothing but kindness and respect to these very marginalized people. They would even intervene and run interference on their behalf in an attempt to protect them from second-rate treatment. This was done on their own time and often on their own dime, and certainly with nothing in it for them--no praise, no acknowledgement—simply two people loving their neighbors as themselves.

When my family and I moved back to California, I continued to work full-time with Micronesian islanders, spending about one-third of my year on Guam, the FSM and Palau. Almost every time I was on Guam, Debbie and I would arrange to see one another. No matter how much time had passed, we would pick up as if no time had gone by. I distinctly remember the time we walked along the shore of the Philippine Sea, catching up on life. Through the grapevine, I had heard a story of some people who had hurt and wronged Debbie. I inquired, “How are the bad people doing?” I’ll never forget her gasp of surprise at my reference to them as “bad people.” Replying in her typical forthright, but gentle way, she replied, “Oh! I don’t think they are bad, just misled.” Although in no way did she intend to shame me, that is exactly what I felt:  shame. Moreover, I felt amazed at someone living out the command to “Love your enemies and to do good to those who persecute you.”

On my trip to Guam in November 2014, I sat with Debbie as she received chemotherapy. To everyone’s shock, stage 4 colon cancer had been discovered. As an IV bag filled with a glowing yellow chemical elixir dripped into Debbie’s vein, we both spoke optimistically about the future, certain that this treatment would do the trick, and she’d be back on her feet in no time (or, at least, that was my thinking). On my return trip to Guam in February/March, I was so consumed with work that I didn’t meet up with Debbie. However, I took a photograph of a Micronesian toddler whose face was inflamed with red spots. Having little money, no medical insurance and being terrified of Guam doctors/hospital, no treatment had been sought for this helpless child. I knew I could email the photo to Debbie and I could count on her guidance to take steps in helping this precious little one. I also took a picture of one of our students whose arm had a nasty-looking mole—melanoma I wondered? “I’ll send this to Dr. Debbie when I get back to CA and get her take on it,” I told myself. Even if she couldn’t diagnose via the photograph, I knew she would find a way for this young adult to be treated. However, upon arriving back to the States, to my complete shock, I received word that Debbie was in the hospital with the possibility of being released on hospice.

Stunned. Sickened. Crushed. How could this be?! How could my kindred spirit, the friend I had pictured myself laughing with in our old age as we refreshed our feet in the tepid tropical waters of the Philippine Sea be THAT sick?! Who would advocate for the innocent and discriminated against islanders who needed medical attention? Who could we call when we had a suicidal student who desperately needed antidepressants but who had no health insurance and no ability to pay? My grief grew and was now not only for myself but for all the islanders who would lose one of their very, very few advocates. How could God take someone so desperately needed? Didn’t God understand that there is no one to replace her? As I write this, tears course down my cheeks. I have no answers to these questions. With all the jerks in the world, why couldn’t God take one of them?! And, then I hear Debbie’s shocked and forthright voice, “They’re not jerks, Karyn! They’re just misled.”

I do not understand why things have to be this way. As I have prayed and cried out to God about this, I have not received answers to my questions. I have, however, clearly sensed that God totally gets my pain--not just intellectually, but in a real visceral way. As a psychotherapist, when my clients are relaying to me stories of deep heartache and agony, even if I have not experienced that same kind of pain, because I understand the human psyche and how pain and loss are processed, my heart aches with my clients. How much more, the God who made me and fully understands how emotions and loss affect a person will have compassion and love for me. Matthew 26:38 says that the night before Jesus was betrayed he said, “My soul is EXCEEDINGLY SORROWFUL, EVEN TO DEATH!” Yeah, He understands deep agonizing pain. The Scripture goes on to say in verse 39 that He fell on his face and prayed, “O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou will.”

I know that Jesus totally gets this kind of heart wrenching, physically agonizing emotional pain. Isaiah 53:3 even says that he was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Somehow, the knowledge that He really does fully get what I’m going through brings me comfort. I guess because I also KNOW that He upholds me with His righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10) and that I am not alone but that He walks with me, “even through the valley of the shadow of death.” And, with His help, I want to go through this like He did when He asked that things be different, but ended His prayer with, “…nevertheless not as I will, but as thou will.”

Postscript:  Months before Debbie was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, everyone was shocked when, out of nowhere, Chris was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. His cancer has been controlled with treatment, but has suddenly started a rapid decline. At this moment (3:15 p.m. PST) he lies in the hospital room next to Debbie. He expects to meet Jesus today and is lying with his running shoes on.....running to the end. He has a big smile on his face and states, "The victory has already been won."


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Terrorists Around the Hedge?!

The fountain gurgled serenely and the sun felt delicious—not too hot, not too cold. I rested in the public courtyard scribbling the last of my grocery list. Rat-ta-ta-ta, rat-ta-ta-ta.  Around the corner of the tall hedge I heard an unusual sound—a very rhythmic sound.  Pondering the unfamiliar noise, I became increasingly uneasy as the more I listened, the more it seemed there was a pattern to the rhythmic clatter on the cobblestones.  Under normal conditions, I don’t think I would have noticed the noise, and if I had, it certainly would have been perceived as innocuous; however; due to recent events, this sound began to take on ominous possibilities.  Was there a strategic pattern in the rhythm?  My mind flew to an extreme place, “Could that be the sound of men’s boots, men intent on quickly and stealthily surrounding the courtyard?  Men with guns?!  I immediately assessed my surroundings, evaluating whether my middle-aged body could hurdle the concrete wall next to me to dive for cover. WHAT?! This spiraling internal dialogue took me by surprise; an unusual sound leaving me, a woman living in Santa Barbara utopia, vigilantly weighing my survival options.  As two caterers rounded the hedge, the wheels on their cart clacking in the grooves of the cobblestones, their cart loaded with white Styrofoam-boxed goodies, my heart-rate returned to normal and I grieved my lost sense of safety.  I acknowledged my hyper vigilant state--a result of the May 23 tragic shooting spree in next door Isla Vista. I consoled myself with the reality that with time, and no additional terror, my security would return. I sent up some prayers for those more directly exposed to the trauma of the shooting, who wouldn’t so easily find peace.

As I suited up for my hockey game, two fellow players, both professors from UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara), approached me and asked me if I had any advice for how they might interact with their students, all deeply affected by the Isla Vista shooting spree.  A hurting community, indeed.

What motivated me to write this blog was the frantic text messages I began receiving today from my 9th grade daughter. “Near our high school, a man killed his wife and children and they haven’t caught the man.  I’m scared!  Why isn’t our school on lockdown?”  While frantically checking online sources to get the facts and discovering the SWAT team and a helicopter had been deployed, as best I could, I tried to reassure my precious child that she was safe.  “Mom! My friend didn’t come to school today. Her dad is kind of crazy and they are going through a divorce. I’m scared he killed them!” My heart broke. More terror, a terror we discovered later was a cruel hoax, someone rubbing salt into the fresh wound just inflicted on our community by the deranged Isla Vista shooter.  And now, a 14-year-old’s sense of safety, gone.

Months ago, before knowing that my own community would experience such trauma, I planned to spend June on Guam and Palau, providing counseling, groups, and seminars on healing the wounds of trauma.  Dr. Diane Langberg, author, expert on trauma counseling, and faculty member of Westminster Theological Seminary states:
If we think carefully about the extensive natural disasters in our time such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis and combine those victims with the many manmade disasters – the violent inner cities, wars, genocides, trafficking, rapes, and child abuse we would have a staggering number.  I believe that if we would stop and look out on suffering humanity we would begin to realize that trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the 21st century.
Sadly, my personal and work experiences validate her assertion.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Dog, a Bag, and an Acrobatic Gecko

Besides the video I posted two nights ago, it has been quite awhile since I last posted on this blog.  This is not for lack of desire, but a result of technical difficulties and the ubiquitous busyness that seems to daily consume me.  Sigh!  But, moving onto much more interesting things, I want to tell you about the second church service that Eric and I attended that first Sunday on Yap. 
This Yapese service was held in the beautiful open-sided church that sits on the hill overlooking the lagoon in Colonia, Yap.  I found it interesting that many of the men stood on the outside of the half walls surrounding the church.  Perhaps they were not regular church attendees but had heard there was a guest preacher that day.  Or, sadly, like many in Micronesia, perhaps they felt ashamed and not worthy to fully enter the church.  Regardless of the reasoning, the church was primarily filled with women. 

Eric was the guest preacher and was to deliver the message in English (not that he had any other option!) and Pren, a church elder, would translate into Yapese. Eric’s message was preceded by a cappella singing complete with the rich harmonies I so love in Micronesian singing.  Shoes off, it was soon time for Eric to deliver his message.  After a rough

start developing a rhythm between messenger and translator, a pattern eventually evolved and the Word of God was being effectively shared. If you’ve ever sat through a talk being simultaneously translated, you know the translation part is a little tedious if you speak the language of the primary speaker.  Thus, during the translation part of the message, my eyes began to wander around the room.  Intrigued, I watched a drama unfold on the wall behind Eric’s head.  Scurrying out from behind the large cross attached to the wall, a baby gecko attempted to catch an insect, when suddenly, a much larger green lizard, bolted out from behind the church flowers and hungrily grabbed 

the gecko by the tail.  The unfortunate gecko valiantly attempted escape, but was securely held in the death grip of the lizard’s jaws. The gecko became utterly still, and the lizard chomped further up on its tail.  Still, the gecko did not budge.  Once again, the lizard opened its jaws to engulf more gecko tail when suddenly the gecko pushed off from the wall, doing an amazing and beautiful back flip in the air, and landed squarely in the center of the altar.  I had to stifle the giggles as this Animal Planet drama unfolded behind Eric and Pren who were completely oblivious.
At the conclusion of the sermon, Eric returned to his seat, where a dog meandered up and snuggled at his shoeless feet; a clear indication of his approval of the sermon.  

As we shifted to make room for the dog, the elders fumbled about looking for the offering plates.  Oops!  Somehow the offering plates were inaccessible, so quickly a plastic bag was found as a substitute.  Seriously, this was an ugly plastic bag—the type of bag that would contain a loaf of bread!  No one minded.  No one was concerned.  Could you imagine the uproar this would create in a typical American church?!  The Yapese parishioners simply broke out in beautiful harmony as the bread bag made its way around the sanctuary.  I had to smile and thank God for the no frills, refreshing simplicity of worshiping Him in spirit and in truth.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Yap Outer Islander Worship Service

I have had nothing but trouble trying to upload this video of the outer island church service (described in my previous post) directly onto this blog.  I have finally resorted to putting it on YouTube.  You will find the URL below:

In the video, you can hear the parishioners singing in their native tongue and you can see the beautiful handmade lavalavas (woven skirts) worn by the women.  Additionally, you will notice the backs of some of the women who continue in the native tradition of going topless.  This is seen far more often once you leave Colonia, the capital of the state of Yap, where this was filmed. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

From the Land of Lavalavas

(Note:  Now that we are back in CA and have time and consistent/fast Internet access, we will post some stories and corresponding pictures depicting our time in Micronesia.  This post was written from Colonia, Yap, on March 25.)
This is the lagoon in Colonia, Yap.  The building in the background but nearly on the water (the left building in the center of the picture) is the youth center where many of the church events are held.  Up on the hill and slightly to the left with the steep tin roof is the Yap Evangelical Church.  PIUs teaching facility is the lime green building directly behind the youth building but up on the hill.  The mission house, where we were staying, is parallel to the teaching facility and off to the left.
In background is a close-up of the Yap Evangelical Church, the red building off to the left but closer to the water is the mission house (where we were staying), and along the water, the light blue building is the youth building (on the right is the house where the Pacific Mission Aviation pilot and his family live).
Awakening to the thick air ubiquitous to Micronesia, I quickly rose from my bed in the mission house and donned my Chuukese skirt and the coolest shirt I could find.  Today I would have the privilege of worshiping with four different people groups in one day.  How cool is that?!  

Knowing that Micronesian church services essentially never start on time, I leisurely munched on a banana out on the porch that sits on a hill overlooking the lagoon and buildings below.  The first service I would attend would be a service for "Outer Islanders."  Yap still operates with a caste system, and the women from the outer islands, considered low-caste, are required to wear a particular type of skirt in public.  These skirts are hand-made on looms. They are woven with thread not much thicker than the common thread we use for sewing in the States; so, you can imagine how many hours it takes to hand-weave a whole skirt out of such thin thread!  The wrap-around skirts, known as lavalavas, have a solid background with stripes of various widths and colors, and are often worn with no shirts (as you can see in the final picture).  

From my perch on the hillside, I could see individuals, couples and families arriving at the church.  Like the diversity and yet coordinated theme found in a quilt, each woman with her beautifully woven skirt purposefully headed for the church.  Within half an hour of the designated start time, rich, melodic singing filled the ocean breezes, and I quickly scurried down the hill to join in the worship of Jesus Christ, our shared God.  

After the singing, Pastor Asael began to preach in his native tongue, Chuukese.  This is not the language of the Outer Islanders, but sadly, there is no pastor for these people.  Pastor Asael came to Yap as a missionary from Chuuk because there were no Yapese nationals willing/qualified to pastor.  Fortunately, the Outer Islanders understand about 60% of what Pastor Asael says since their languages overlap to this extent.  As Pastor Asael fervently delivered the Word of God, I discreetly exited and headed back up the hill, where the Yapese Evangelical Church is located.  I'll write about that experience on my next blog!            

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Real Man's Retreat

    One of my (Eric's) responsibilities while in Yap has been to speak at the Yap Evangelical Church men's retreat. Quite simply, this was the most unique men's retreat I've ever been to. A picture tells a thousand words, or so they say. It's certainly true here. Thus, I've added several pictures of our retreat facility, what the Yapese refer to as a "Man's House." Let me describe it as you glance through the pictures. All over the islands of Yap are men's houses; at least one per village. They are what it sounds like: Gathering places for men . . . only! They are constructed on a base of limestone rocks that form a large rectangle, perhaps 10 feet by 30 feet (or more), with the foundation being about three feet off the ground. Atop the foundation is built the house itself, with milled local wood siding topped with a high-pitched roof made of bamboo and coconut leaves. The roofs are made so well they really do not leak, as we found out during Friday's rain. Around the long side of the walls are several small openings to crawl through to gain entry. The rocks that make up the inside floor are covered with slats of split bamboo, and the room is divided the long way by a long straight piece of tree trunk. That tree trunk forms the communal pillow as each man lines up side-by-side with feet facing out toward the wall, on either side of the tree trunk. It's really rugged and, well, very manly. So manly, in fact, that there are no chairs, just your rear-end and some really hard bamboo slats atop a thick bed of rocks. Okay, though it may have been quite manly, it also quite hurt! Sure, the islanders sat down quite comfortably, legs all wrapped up "Indian style." As for this man, I could barely stand it; the walls were wet from the rain, so I couldn't even find any back support! Three full days later, my other end is still sore. Apparently, one guy noticed my desperate wiggling and miserable attempts to shift my weight around, so, genuinely confused, he asked me what in the world was the matter. I don't think he really believed me when I explained that basically, I never sit on the floor. Okay, true confession: I didn't sleep in the men's house with the others. To my surprise, Pastor Asael (eh-sigh-il) told me there wasn't enough room, so I "had" to leave and sleep on a real pillow in the bungalow down the road. I didn't argue.
    Back to the man's house. On one side of the room sat a few Chuukese guys, men from the neighboring island state of Chuuk. To my right sat about twice as many Yapese guys, concentrating on their beetle-nut chewing as much as on me. In the middle sat the great American ghost who could not, for the life of him, sit still. Nevertheless, amidst all my shifting, I managed to lead these men through a study of the biblical view of marriage. What I said, however, was not nearly as fascinating as the sharing that they began with. Pastor Asael asked the men to share what marriage is like in their culture. Eventually, the otherwise shy Micronesians began to describe things like the intricate details of arranged marriages, the exchange of the traditional stone money, the tradition of the boy moving into a small hut on the property at about age 14 to become a man, and the house where women go and stay a few days each month to be cared for by the midwives. As I opened to Genesis and revealed how men and women were created equal before God, and how Ephesians 5 so clearly instructs men to love their wives, they began to identify the ways their own culture serves to devalue women. Without any prompting, they began to question the normal practice of women having to wait until the man has eaten to his heart's content before she gets anything that might be leftover. They wondered if the man walking way out in front of the woman, a "must" in their culture, actually serves to demean them. Quite frankly, we sat there (uncomfortably perhaps), pondering the incredible image of loving our wives the way Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5.25).
    Now, as people share during Karyn's conference on parenting and marriage, it is all the clearer what a tough challenge this represents to this culture where there is a very strong hierarchy established even along an ancient caste system. It's a culture where power counts for everything. It's also a culture where to upset the "apple cart" would have profound ramifications, so all convictions must be translated into action very carefully. At the end of the day (as my deriairre cried for mercy), we landed on Joshua 24.15: "Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." We may not see whole cultures change in our lifetime, but all changes starts with me and my house.
    N.B. In case you wondered, Karyn and I are extremely cautious and highly sensitive to make sure we do not "tell" other cultures what's wrong with them. To be honest, we don't pretend to really know what's "wrong" with other cultures. The one thing we are certain about is that all cultures are extremely complex, mixed of "good" and "bad." In fact, partly to avoid "culture-ism" and to set the stage, I began our discussions by laying out a very critical overview of the devaluing of marriage in American culture.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Saga of Getting to Yap

     So, I suppose it's obvious that I didn't get a blog posted before heading to Yap. Some of you know what it's like making preparations for a three-week trip when you're leaving the kids at home. Well, that's what I've been up to. The good news is that I am officially in Yap State, the Federated States of Micronesia. Instead of repeating the interesting factoids about Yap, I will refer to the blog we posted on March 15, 2011, since it contains all of the necessary background information. It's called "The First 24 Hours on Yap."
     Let me simply begin by stating that getting here this time was nothing shy of a miracle. In fact, it really seemed like someone didn't want me here! Go figure. In a nutshell, here's the saga:
  • 6:00 a.m., March 16, I arrived at the Santa Barbara Airport (SBA) to catch my flight to Guam, and was told that my flight had been canceled and there were no other options available to get to Guam except to return on the 17th. 
  • 7:00 a.m., March 17 (next day), I arrived at SBA, caught my flight to Los Angeles (LAX) and missed the connecting flight by five minutes. The agent said, “Why was your flight late, it shows you left Santa Barbara ahead of schedule?!” No explanation was provided, but I was informed that once again, it would be impossible for me to reach Guam on that day; I would have to spend the night at a local hotel and leave on the 18th. I suggested they have me stay the night in Honolulu (1/3 of the way to Guam). 
  • 3:00 p.m. Boarded a plane in LAX, heading to Honolulu.  I was seated in a row with a couple who were inebriated, and an hour into the flight they became extremely belligerent.  They demanded more alcohol from the flight crew who were refusing to serve them. Infuriated, they yelled, cursed, threw a bottle, and, among other things, ripped up the in-flight magazine and threw it all over the floor. Five hours of intense conflict filled the flight, ending with police entering the plane and removing the unruly couple.
  • Upon arrival in Honolulu, it became painfully obvious that my luggage had been lost.  At 11:00 p.m. (3:00 a.m. PST), after 20 straight hours of either being in an airport or on a plane, I was too exhausted to continue the battle for my luggage.  So, with no change of clothes or toiletries, I left for the hotel.
  • Noon, March 18, still no luggage, I am praying that I will, in fact, be on the 2:25 plane for Guam.
  • 6:00 p.m., Guam time. I actually arrived, just about on time, but I had no idea if my luggage had caught up with me. As I held my breath at baggage pick-up, low and behold, it appeared before my sight-sore eyes. Finally, something had gone right!
With some smiley PIU students.
     The sad reality, however, is that by now I was three days late. The essential time I had carved out to spend with PIU's women's dean was now whittled down to a few hours. The leisurely hours I had set aside to hang out with the women students, now nearly shot. It was a grand reminder that, despite my well-laid plans, ultimately, I do not call the shots. Maybe someday I'll learn what that was all about.
     So it seemed as if I had just arrived when I found myself shuttling back to the airport to meet Eric for the 11.59 p.m. flight to tiny Yap (his trip to Guam was smooth as glass!). From here, everything flowed. Greeted with the traditional flower leis once in Yap, we were brought to the mission house by our wonderful friends and co-workers, Asael Ruda and family. If all goes as planned (!), we will dive right into a men's retreat, a full day of preaching, lots of fellowship and consulting, and then the big parenting and marriage conference. 
I even got to sing in chapel with Jaynee!


     At least I made it . . . with my luggage in tow. More to come.