Monday, May 31, 2010

Why Stay in Africa?

Since Bob’s death, many people have asked whether or not I will stay in Africa. My response has pretty much been, “I will stay in Africa until God tells me differently.” The calling that we had to Africa was one given to both Bob and myself, as a couple and as individuals. Because I believe I still have work to do here, I will stay. But as with any good question, it does make me think. Beyond feeling called, why do I want to stay in Africa? Why do I not want to live in North America? Additionally, I have recently had a number of people ask me what exactly I do in Africa. I will address that question next time.

The truth is that I like Africa better than North America (and Bob did as well). Our plan was to stay after the kids go to college, but be able to move away from the capital cities that we find ourselves in due to schools or Internet needs, to more remote areas. My hope has always been to be able to move to a village and learn to live very simply. I don’t know if words or even pictures can answer why I like it better. The first time we landed in Liberia in 2004, it didn’t take me long to turn to Bob and say, “I feel like I’m home.” I don’t know where that came from. Obviously, not everyone who visits Liberia feels that way or there would be a population explosion. So what is it?

I would have to say that the predominant reason is that life feels so real here; the struggle for survival is palpable and in your face. I am reading a book called, The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz who talked about what struck her when she visited Uganda, “I couldn’t recall ever feeling so fully alive getting ready for a day…there was a rawness and a beauty here that brought every emotion right to the surface, and I loved the feeling, loved being in this place where the best and worst of everything seemed to coexist…I was stunned by the resilience of everyone I met…and was awestruck by the Ugandans’ ability to endure suffering and still embrace great joy.” I certainly resonate with her words. I love driving down a road that is packed with human beings involved in so many aspects of life – conversing, selling, buying, cooking, doing laundry, bathing, arguing, crying, and laughing – so many people laughing. I often can’t believe how many people I see laughing. The best and worst coexisting – poverty, struggle for survival, and yet laughter and a seeming contentment.

I love living in a community with open windows - all the time, everyone, 24/7, 365 days per year. You hear life around you constantly, you smell what others are cooking, you hear which baby is sick by the crying, you hear children laughing and arguing, adults conversing, dogs barking, roosters crowing. As I drive into more remote areas, I look with curiosity and longing at the villages, wondering what life is like for them, wanting to experience what they do - the closeness and struggles that they face.

I remember when we moved back from Liberia to the US, pulled into the garage of the rented house we were using, closed the garage door behind us and entered the home. The silence was deafening. I remember how Bob and I looking at each other, wondering at the silence and how empty it was. Driving down the streets in Grand Rapids, there were very few people out. Everyone in cars. No wonder we turn so much to the TV to get a sense of community.

I feel more alive here. I feel closer to God. I feel closer to my neighbor. In fact, it’s easier for me to figure out who my neighbor is here. I am less tempted by my own wants and desires. There is less to do and therefore more opportunity to be. Every day, as I go about my work and my natural sinful nature wants to complain, within seconds I am reminded of how blessed I am. I can’t feel sorry for myself here for very long, despite the difficulties in doing the simplest of tasks. I am more grateful for life, for health, for food, for water.

Sometimes people tell me that they think I’m strong for living in Africa. I often think that I am too weak to live the way God has called me to live in America. This place is easier for me.

I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone reading it. These pictures might help. Take time to look at the faces.

These children are hard at work with palm nuts. Not an easy job. Yet they laugh freely.

These children are carrying babies on their back yet still finding joy in play.

Women working together.

These children don't appear to have much but look at smiles and the laughter.

Monday, May 24, 2010

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

I always thought that the verse from Psalm 23,

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
was meant for the person dying.

I felt bad reciting that psalm to Bob about an hour before he died

because I didn’t want him to think he was dying.

I didn’t think he was dying.

I now realize that the verse is intended for those who are grieving.

We are walking in the shadow of his death.

The shadow of that death makes the valley very dark.

A valley is already dark. The sun doesn’t stay long.

The shadow makes it darker.

The shadow is depressing, oppressing, heavy.

It’s difficult to breathe.

It’s difficult to move forward without tripping, stumbling, faltering.

There are puddles, low hanging branches, rocks in the path.

I am muddy, scratched, bruised, and bleeding.

I tumbled into the valley, with no warning signs…

No gradual decline; it was like falling off a cliff into the valley.
It was light and then suddenly dark.
There was no map provided; no trip planning.

I hear the voices of people on either side of the valley, at the top,

rushing here and there, going on with their lives.
I wonder how they can.

Don’t they see me down here? How can life go on so quickly?

But it’s dark down here. I’m in the shadow.

I realize that when I die, when anyone dies, it will be the same.

A blip of people remembering and then rushing on with their lives.

What is the point?

We struggle, fight, try to do the right thing,

day after day after day, hour after hour,

and it vanishes in an instant.

Seemingly meaningless.

Stop. Don’t give me platitudes. I’ve heard them all.

Most of them start with the word, “Just”.

This valley I’m in is nothing new.
King Solomon, the wisest man, said “Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecc. 3:19b-20)

Psalm 39:5 says, “Each man’s life is but a breath.”

I want to curl into a ball and rest

But the air is so thick that it’s hard to breathe.

And I hear the voices of Hannah and Noah.

And I see those suffering around me to a much greater extent.

And I hear the voice of my Master saying, take the next step.

If it’s a valley, there should be a time when I begin to climb out.

But for now it’s dark. And I’m tired.

[The pictures below were taken by Bob in Liberia. Note how dark the shadows are in comparison to the brilliant light above it.]

Monday, May 17, 2010

Switching from Elephants to Grasscutters

We thought it was time to take a brief break from filling you in on our grief work to bring you an update on the other work that is going on at the Reed household. Although it has been difficult to give our full attention and concentration to other work, it has been a necessary distraction at times from the grief work.

Hannah and Noah are finishing up 11th and 10th grade, respectively. Exams start in two weeks and then they will fly back to Grand Rapids on June 7. Thankfully, we happened to book the same flight as another missionary family (the same family who was so helpful after Bob's death - Jeff and Laurie Korum), so Hannah and Noah will fly with someone they know. Noah will spend a few weeks with long-time friends, the Steenwyks, and have the opportunity to work on their farm. Hannah will stay with her aunt and uncle, Janette and Dale VanderVeen, do some volunteering with the Grand Rapids Public Library, and hang out with her Potters House friends. I will finish the class that I am teaching in Ghana, spend a week in Liberia, and another week in Cote d'Ivoire, then join the children in Grand Rapids for a little rest and relaxation. We will return to Ghana on the first of August. It's hard to believe Hannah will be a senior and Noah a junior. Hannah will be making decisions soon about college.

In the meantime, my work has continued with Partners Worldwide in Ghana, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire. In the five weeks since I've returned, there have been various projects that I have worked on for each of our partner countries. One of the more major projects was to finish something that Bob and I had started prior to his death - the delivery of grasscutters for a demonstration farm in Côte d'Ivoire. What exactly are grasscutters? Not lawnmowers as some people have guessed, but an animal, known also as a cane rat, from the genus Thryonomys. Grasscutters are valued as a source of "bush meat" throughout West and Central Africa. Our partner in Danané, Côte d'Ivoire, with Director Dea Lieu, was working on re-establishing their demonstration farm where they had produced hundreds of grasscutters prior to the 2002 war. While they looked at options to buy these in Benin, we realized that it would be much cheaper to buy them in neighboring Ghana. With Bob's agreement to help me (since he's the animal lover), we started meeting with grasscutter farmers in the greater Accra area. That was then interrupted by Bob's death, and the team in Danané patiently waited until I returned to Ghana.

Once back in Ghana, it didn't take long for me to realize that I needed to get moving on this project on my own. Thankfully, a Ghanaian from the affiliate with whom we are working, stepped in to help me, and before long we had arrangements to buy six colonies (4 female, 1 male), the boxes constructed for transport, the medical certificates from a vet, and in the process I also had to become certified as a "Wildlife Exporter" with the government of Ghana (yet another strange thing I can add to my resume). Déa and I agreed to meet at the border town of Elubo, about 150 kms from Abidjan (750 kms from Danané) and 350 kms from Accra. Early that morning, as I prepared to leave, I needed to feed the grasscutters before getting on the road. As I reached in to put a second bunch of grass in one of the boxes, to my horror, one grasscutter got out. As I froze, in a split second, a second one escaped. I quickly recovered and shut the gate on the box, all the while yelling for Noah (at 5:45 am) to get out and help catch them. The dogs (all three) very quickly decided to "help", caught and killed one within seconds. Hannah got out of the house first and tried to hold all three dogs - not an easy task to do when they are on the hunt - while Noah and I tried to catch the other grasscutter. Noah eventually caught the other one and it was returned safely to her box. In hindsight, it was probably quite a comedic sight as we chased dogs who chased grasscutters; then we chased grasscutters while the dogs were trapped inside the house. The grasscutters are now safely in Danane where we hope and pray that they will bring the needed protein to the people there. Danane is still in rebel held territory and the people of Cote d'Ivoire continue to be a nation divided as they wait for an election (since 2005). Poverty and malnutrition are on the rise in this country and we ask for your prayers.

The black line indicates the road we took from Accra to the border town of Elubo.
Here are the cute little rascals, looking all innocent while mischievously plotting their escape.

The road going through Cape Coast.

The road to Elubo, the border town between Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. Note the great shape the road is in - the road was good almost the whole way, only about 20 miles were a little rough.

Déa Lieu, the Director of ACLCP, giving direction to Pastor Dah, the Chairperson for ACLCP, on how to place the grasscutters. Delivery is complete!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Elephant in the Room - reflections from Hannah

[Weather: The rain has begun to fall several times a week in small amounts. The weather today is 91 degrees F, with a humidity of 89%.]I have an elephant. I carry it with me everywhere I go. The weight of my elephant is immense, it’s almost unbearable at times, and yet I can’t put it down. It’s huge and it’s amazing to me how it can go everywhere I go. But what is even more stunning is how nobody seems to notice it. Every day, I go to school and I expect someone to comment on it, to talk about it or ask me about it. When the weight gets heavy, I wait for someone to notice the pain this elephant is inflicting, but they usually don’t. They avoid the topic, when all I want to do is talk about it. I don’t want their sympathy, because the thing is, I don’t need sympathy. It won’t help me. All I want is for someone to acknowledge my burden, to talk to me as an equal, not as someone who is so crippled by this weight and pain that I need what sympathy they can offer. I don’t want their sympathy- though there is a time and place for it- but I also don’t want them to avoid the issue entirely. People walk by it every day, avoiding it or maybe so consumed with their own issues and lives that they fail to notice it. Maybe they have forgotten that it’s even in the room. I don’t want my elephant to be all people think about. I just don’t want it to be ignored.

Grief is crippling. Not entirely in the physical sense, but very much in the emotional and psychological sense. The elephant is just as much that of the mind as that of the body. It is the burden of everyone, and everyone has their own elephants; be they tremendously big or very small, our elephants are key parts of our lives. They shape us and help us grow, and if the weight of the elephant doesn’t kill those on whom it inflicts pain, it certainly makes them stronger.

My elephant has become a part of my life. I don’t think that I’ll ever get rid of it. It will always be present in my life, no matter how old I get, or where I live, or who I marry. But after time, it will get smaller. The weight will decrease and become less crushing. It will help shape me and will integrate itself into my lifestyle. It will become my pet instead of my burden. But until then, I must press on. The weight feels unbearable right now, but in time, it will lessen. Day by day, the weight will slowly decrease. In the meantime I will focus on the goal- that is God and all He has to offer. He sometimes feels distant, sometimes His voice isn’t as loud, but I can’t wait to see what His plans are for me, and how He will use this elephant to make me into a child of God and a servant of others.

A brief ‘us’ update. School continues to be a challenge, as all high schools are, but now with an added burden. Each day is hard to face and each night I fall in to bed completely exhausted. Depression is present, and though its strength comes and goes, it is always there. I’m having some anxiety when it comes to school and when I think about the work I have to do. My mom has been amazing, though she would never say so. I admire her strength and her abilities more than ever, as she takes up the challenges of each day with grace and a certain strength that blows my mind. There are people supporting her who I deeply appreciate- they have given her great peace of mind and have helped her work through many a problem, such as lack of sleep, how to deal with the stress that Noah and I are experiencing, and finding time to grieve in days that are so hectic. Noah is doing similar to how I am- sad, grieving, still in shock and very stressed. We’re all holding up as good as can be expected. Which is not that great, but we don’t really expect much else.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bob's words on Life and Love

One of the things that I did after Bob’s memorial service was spend time in the basement of my sister’s house, digging through our many “memory” boxes. I took some of what was there back to Ghana – our family movies, many of the pictures from our “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12), and the letters Bob wrote me over the years. I have been allowing myself to be immersed in the past, maybe in a way of avoiding the future. So I thought I would let Bob write this blog by sharing an excerpt of one of his letters as well as a brief family video clip.

[I do feel like I need to share with you the internal struggle I have with sharing personal information in such a public forum. There are two reasons that I have determined for my motivation to do this: one, it helps me to share my pain – there’s a part of me that wants the world to know what I am missing, what you are missing, what the world is missing. The second, more altruistic reason (since the first is pretty self-indulgent), is that I have heard from many people since Bob’s passing that this event has caused them to draw closer to their spouse, examine their preparedness if this were to happen to them, and/or examine their relationship to God and their calling. So my prayer is that this sharing will be a blessing to someone in a way that enriches their life, their love, and their relationship to their Creator and Savior.]

Since much of our relationship was long distance prior to our engagement, we wrote many letters – his letters were often more than ten pages. This letter was written almost exactly twenty years ago, a month before Bob proposed to me in June of 1990. This excerpt was found on page six, as he pondered our future together:

“We are going to laugh and play and work and think and rest in each other’s arms when the day is done.

We will walk and talk and smile and fight and touch and lose our minds together.

We will hold hands and dishes and children and diet Cokes and diet Pepsis and each other’s hearts. And we will model love to everyone who touches our lives.

And someday, when I am eighty-five and you are seventy-one, and the end of our lives is just ahead, we will still be holding hands. I will know you and you will know me, and we will look into tired eyes, still full of joy and longing, and we will be so glad, so supremely happy we walked this path together.

I never want to say goodbye to you, Renita.

I want to be clumsy with you, clunky with you and klutzy with you. I want to be corny (like now) with you and embarrass myself with you.

I want you to see me fully, as I am without attempts to impress. I want us to share – not the facades not the attempts to be what we are not and never could be – no, I want us to share what we are, I want us to be ourselves with each other, and still love each other deeply and passionately. And oh! How healing that will be!

We are going to do it right. We are going to find out what love means, and we are going to do it right.

We are going to test the promises of God with each other, and with His help, we are going to prove that love is the greatest gift of all.

Am I being pie in the sky? Or am I letting my idealism run wild without check? No! For it is in insecurity and doubt, in looking for problems that failure exists! It is through confident faith in God and each other, in not allowing doubt to sidetrack us that “doing it right” finds full flower!

So I have a vision for us. We will love each other, dearly and deeply and kindly and warmly and passionately and truly. We will do it right.

Not because we can. Because with God’s help, we know we can.

No! We will do it right because we will to do it right. When we go into this, we must go into it absolutely committed to being the very best we can be for each other. We must go into this without self doubt nagging at us. Our insecurities and doubts will always exist, but they must not set the tone for our relationship. Our love and our faith and our values and our vision for perfection must set the tone!

You with me?

If so, I have something to say to you. And something to ask you.

But not right now.

I don’t know if we "did it right." We did work hard at not letting our insecurities and doubts set the tone for the relationship – but we didn’t always succeed. We seriously questioned on a number of occasions whether or not we had lost our minds – or at least whether others thought we did. We worked hard at letting our love, our faith, our values, and our vision set the tone – but there again, we didn’t always succeed. Bob had a vision for us and he courageously pursued it. We didn’t make it to 85 years old and 71 years old. Only God knows why. Bob got his wish in not saying good-bye. I wish I could say the same.

I now have to have a new vision and the words from the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” keep going through my head:

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best thought by day or by night
Waking or sleeping Thy presence my light

Be thou my wisdom and Thou my true word
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord
Thou my great Father, I, Thy true son
Thou in me dwelling and I with Thee one

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Riches I heed not nor man's empty praise
Thou mine inheritance now and always
Thou and thou only first in my heart
High King of heaven my treasure Thou are

High King of heaven my victory won
May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heaven's Sun
Heart of my own heart whatever befall
Still be my vision O Ruler of all

And now a few words from Bob in 1995, on his 41st birthday, reflecting on life and death. [For those of you with kids, you should be used to listening through a child fussing - for those of you not used to it, it may be more difficult to hear:-).]

[If you who were not able to attend Bob’s Memorial Service and would like to hear it, an audio recording is available at the Madison Square Church website at (along with other great messages!); click on resources, then on sermon recordings, then find 2010-03-30, Bob Reed Memorial Service.]