Sunday, November 23, 2008

How Africa Has Touched My Life

July seems like so long ago, yet when I look at these photos and remember my time in Makamba, Burundi it seems like it was just yesterday. I wish I could walk out my door today and see these smiling faces and be back at work building the medical clinic. Alas, God has work for me to do in Dallas today.

Here's a little bit of insight, though, on the important "take-aways" from this recent trip. Thanks to each one of you who made it possible for me to go. I hope I can communicate a little bit of what I learned to each of you. So, here goes:

--I learned about trusting the Lord to meet my every need, just as He does for the people of Burundi. Being there brought the great realization that material goods do not bring happiness. These were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met and they have very few material items. Simplicity is a beautiful thing.

--The joy of having few agenda items. Being there to help where needed (moving bricks mostly) and to love people was our charge. It was simple, yet completely rewarding to come to the worksite and just be open to whatever God might bring my way, whether that’s praying for an elderly woman who suffers from asthma and has no access to a shot that she needs that will help her breathe more comfortably, playing Frisbee with the children, singing along in English or Kirundi with groups of kids or adults, laughing with them over my inability to pronounce words in their language, supporting others on my team. Every moment was beautiful and worth savoring. I loved not having a To Do list!

--Being safe is not quite as important as being available. We were watched over very closely en route to and while in Burundi. We were very safe – it seemed – in a country where it’s not unusual to see soldiers and police officers on the streets with huge guns and 1-2 children on the worksite with machetes. (Not normally a strange site in a country big on farming, but with the history of genocide in this country, in which machetes were widely used, it was shocking to see.) I was grateful to not feel fearful however I realized that “safety” can become an idol. God has a plan and He does allow things to happen. I believe that He will protect and care for me, but that doesn’t mean I will be kept safe from harm or that He cannot use this fallen world and the people in it to glorify Himself through any circumstances. I realized that while safety is a gift, it is not a guarantee nor is it to be prized over God’s plan for me.

--God is our provider, even amongst the most poverty-stricken people. He clothes the flowers, feeds the birds and provides for our daily needs as we rest and trust in Him. Several children wore clothing that was threadbare or ripped or poorly sized for their little bodies. Boys and girls were easily mistaken because you couldn’t always determine which was which based on clothing or appearance. We often recognized kids day to day amongst the crowd because they wore the only clothing they had every day we saw them. And they wore them with big smiles and without a second thought. When we had to repeat what we were wearing once or twice, no one around us cared or commented or even noticed. I had more than I needed on the trip and still have closets of clothes at home. How could I want for more when these people were surviving on so little.

--In Africa, small children can play with scissors. :)

--Greed is destructive. Every day we were greeted with hoards of children surrounding our van as we arrived. And they were all asking for our water bottles. Empty or full they prized what we would throw away in America without a second thought. And when a child would get his hands on a water bottle, sometimes a challenge would ensue from a larger kid. We soon realized that we would be unable to safely distribute the candy, clothes and toys we’d brought to the children we’d met on the site. If something as small as an empty plastic water bottle could cause a child to be trampled on, we couldn’t risk giving out the gifts we’d brought. We live in a society where all the marketing around us teaches us to be dissatisfied with what we already possess. It’s a sad place to be when we allow our souls be drawn to things with so little true value. (Thankfully, we were able to leave our donated items for ALARM to distribute wherever they were most needed.)

--The importance of margin – the willingness and availability to stop and connect with someone even if I’m on my way somewhere. I loved living and serving with this team. It was nice to be able to go to any one of them and talk about the day, share something that had just happened, pray or to ask for help in a particular area of the site and to do so without worry about time/schedules/ obligations. Relationships are important…more important than my To Do list.

--Community – people need other people and they work together to provide for the needs of the community. In Gitega we were unable to obtain a permit to travel on a Saturday morning because everyone in the community is supposed to be out cleaning the roads. Imagine if we did this in the U.S. – everyone stops what they are doing and does something all at the same time in the community. Seems like it would make this a better country and help us be better neighbors and not as self-consumed.

There’s so much more. This is just a glimpse. I hope to go back, but if I never have that privilege, I am forever changed in ways that aren’t easy to put into words. Thanks for your patience in waiting to hear from me. I know it’s been far too long since you've gotten an update.

The people of Burundi thank you and are grateful for your gift of this clinic. I wish you could see the looks on their faces, witness their joyous signing and hear their words of sheer gratitude. You have touched their lives and their hearts.
This photo was taken in early November 2008 - the clinic is almost completed...and looks so much bigger with the roof on!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Not much to say...I'm on my way...

Africa here I come.

Now if only I can get everything in the allowable luggage limits.


More updates in 10+ days.

Off to DFW in about 30 minutes....after a trip to the bank, lunch, etc.

Grateful for your prayers. Praying that I serve Him well.

Keep an eye on for updates on our trip.

Au revoir!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tears...Every Day

The first team of young adults arrived in Burundi on from the daily blog updates at have shared tales of lost luggage, no running water and a few people with a rash (that thankfully isn't hindering their work). It's so crazy to sit here at my desk every day, knowing that they are there...knowing that I will be there so soon. And every day I read, I cry.

It's been a tough and very emotional week for me. There are several reasons for this...not the least of which is just the realization that I'm going back to a place that had such an influence on my heart last year. I'm eager to return. Eager to have a separation from Dallas. Eager to experience what God is going to do in and through our team. That seems really self-focused...but I know the truth. Though we are building a clinic and going to serve a community in need, we will be far more changed than they.

Our team of 14 (minus 2 already in Africa and 1 who was out of town) gathered last Sunday for team-building, most of which was a high ropes course. I usually love this stuff. This time I was terrified. Talk about out of my comfort zone! There's lots that could happen to me in Africa that would be nothing compared to the sheer terror I felt swinging 15 feet above the ground (yes, I was harnessed in...that didn't seem to calm my fears) and having no idea how to move forward or backward. These photos make it look easy!

I'm super grateful we had that time together. I'm excited for what lies ahead for us, as a team and individually. I know when we return to Dallas we'll be closer than we could have imagined.

So, just a few minutes ago, and what inspired this post, was an e-mail from Wes, our team leader, asking a much larger audience for donations of tools that the young adults team has suggested we bring along: claw hammers, stone hammers (with hammer on one side and chisel on the other), trowels for brick laying, and levels. Hmm...most of these tools, I've never used in my life...OK, I've never used any of those tools. :) But what accompanied the request was this photo with Deo (head of Alarm Burundi) wearing a Journey t-shirt, and alongside the man laying the brick is the Governor of the province. A Watermark team spent time with him on their last trip in March.

Seeing this photo made it so real. It also answered a lot of questions... but more than anything, it's real. That's the clinic. That's a wall. And there's another wall in the background. Those are bricks! Yes, we are building a medical clinic!

And after my last post something else happened that I wanted to share here as well. Our deadline for fundraising was a few weeks ago. They wanted to make sure we had everything covered well before the trip. Any extra that came in after that would actually go to relieve some personal expenses for shots and prescription meds and anything above and beyond that would be put towards the cost of building this clinic ($60,000 American). Out of the blue one day...not long after I'd been praying that God would provide for my own needs in order to pay all my bills before leaving the country...I got a check in the mail. It was from a sweet friend from a bible study group we were in a few years ago. We hardly ever see each other...mostly just in passing, if we're lucky. But the letter enclosed with the check said, "We wanted to support your trip to Africa! (I meant to send this a month ago)...." As I pondered God's provision...and remembered that all my expenses were covered, including my shots and meds...I realized it's not just ME and my team going to Africa to build a clinic. WE are building a medical clinic. All of us. Every person who gave to my trip and to every other team member who is going or who is already there. Hundreds and hundreds of friends, relatives, and neighbors came together, mostly sliently, to support our trips and to help build a medical clinic. If you gave one dollar or prayed one time, just look at those bricks being laid in Burundi. You are building a medical clinic!

Thank you for sending me. Thank for the privilege of going. I know I will never be the same.

Monday, July 7, 2008

"We're Building a Medical Clinic"

Something has been bugging me lately. It's the way I describe this trip. "I'm going to Africa in two weeks. We're building a medical clinic." It reminds me of that thing busy Americans do when we run into someone we know, maybe not that well, and we're kind of in a hurry to get somewhere. "Hi. How are you," we say. "Fine, thanks. How are you," is the reply we receive. What we've exchanged really isn't any information at all...not the true interest given or response we desire and expect from our close friends. But sometimes we even do this with them.

I realized, that's how I feel when I give the quick response, "We're building a medical clinic." It's not because what I'm saying is false. We ARE building a medical clinic. It's that it really doesn't capture the full purpose and meaning of the trip. Sure, it's a short description that everyone can understand the value of, but giving the "short explanation" gives the other person permission to nod and say, "Oh, that's great." Then they're off the hook. Just like the daily "how are you?" greeting, my statement never really requires me or the other person to engage, and we both walk away with very little value in the words we've just exchanged.

But there's so much more I could say about this trip. Even with what little I know of the country and the project. Why in the world am I giving the quick answer that gets me out the door without really having to invest (or captivate the other person) in a longer, more detailed conversation about why I'm going and what we're doing there?

Rather than answer the WHY question, I do want to share a few other reasons we're going to Africa.

1. It's not just a building we are constructing. It's going to be the only "modern" medical facility within an hour's walk for about 80,000 people who are refugees returning to their homeland after the brutal genocide that ravaged their lives, their families, and their neighborhoods more than 10 years ago.

2. Our trip is in partnership with ALARM - African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries - an African-founded organization by a dear Rwandan man named Celestin. He was in the States when the genocide began in Rwanda and his heart broke for his people when he learned that somewhere around 80% of pastors were either killed or fled the country. What this meant is that people who survived had no where to turn to deal with the deep pain in their hearts and minds after watching the murder of their friends and family members. God is a god of comfort, and there was no one left to be the hands and feet of Christ, to remind them that God loves them or to give them hope for a better future. Celestin's mission, through ALARM, is to train up a new generation of leaders in the faith who can fulfill this role and bring hope, leadership and reconciliation to their people.

3. The value of a child is very different over there. Families are large and even small children have great responsibility to care for the younger ones. Many don't go to school because their families can't afford it and/or they need to work to help support the family. Most children have zero exposure to biblical teaching...even in countries like Burundi where the majority of the population is Christian. Adults go to church for an entire day on Sunday and the children are sent into the field to play soccer and entertain themselves during that time. Many have never heard even the simplest bible stories and many just don't have adults in their lives who have time to nurture them, play with them or invest time in them. We are going to play with, love on, and teach the children we encounter. We are planning mini-bible lessons for them, complete with sock puppets and stories that will teach them of God's love for them.

4. We're going to learn something too. This trip is somewhat experimental in nature. These two groups of singles (one group in their 20s and one in their 30s) have been selected because of demonstrated leadership within the ministries of the church. One part of our mission is to determine the possibility of making this a repeatable trip in years to come for other groups of singles. We've been reminded over and over (and I remember so clearly from my trip last September) that nothing is set in stone. Just about anything could change once we get over there. And there are a lot of moving parts that our trip leaders are managing (not to mention all the intricacies each person brings to the trip just by being there...did I mention I'm a vegetarian!) :) So, we're going in order to figure out if it's possible for others to go later.

5. Life change. Going to Africa changed me. It didn't take long to settle back into American life, but having been there, having seen what I saw, experienced what I experienced, I don't think I will ever be the same. I'm going again because I truly value the changed perspective I gained last year from stepping outside my comfort zone and witnessing a people who love God in a way that I've only dreamed of. They also don't seems to carry the burden I do related to material possessions. Being around people who have very little--and are SO HAPPY--is a deep lesson for a girl like me. I want to continue to allow God to change me in this area.

6. Caring for the poor. As much as I was raised to help those who are less fortunate, I can honestly say that I've had difficulty most of my life connecting to the plight of the poor and less fortunate. I hate to admit that...especially so might ruin my image! But in the last year I've seen movement in my heart in this area. Part of that has to do with my last trip to Africa, part of it with reading the book Same Kind of Different As Me, and yet another part is my decision to volunteer serving lunch to the homeless in South Dallas. Before I knew Christ it was easier to turn away, ignore, pretend not to see and act as if it was someone else's job to help the poor. Even in the first few years of walking with Him I continued in this pattern. But lately, it's not as easy to do that. I can't say I have friends who are homeless, but I've actually begun to not resist the idea of such a thing. God has used my experiences to personalize poverty for me. And He's reminded me that I have my own version of poverty. And those things have made all the difference.

There are likely several more reasons to share...but I'll ponder those and write again soon.

Thanks to so many of you who have commented about reading my blog. How fun to know this isn't just sitting somewhere in cyberspace. :)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Two Weeks 'Til Departure

Two weeks and counting until the departure of our second team going to Burundi (the first team leaves on the 11th).

It's Independence Day, and I'm grateful for the many freedoms God has given me. And I'm considering just the concept of these words...independence...freedom...and what a dear friend asked of me yesterday: What do you want independence from?

And for those in Burundi...I'm thinking about how they probably know a different kind of independence than I do. They have independence from living in a culture that is drowning in materialism. They have independence from a desire to fit in (both are things I continue to confess and pray that God will help me let go of). They even have independence from busy-ness...or at least in the way I know it.

In Burundi, it's about daily survival. For them their quest for independence/freedom is probably more about freedom from fear, coming to terms with the devastation that happened in their country, during their life time. And it's about a hope that it will never happen again.

The Africans I met in September 2007, were an amazing people. We encountered men and women who, given the opportunity to receive a micro-loan, were praising God and investing that money to start businesses that would provide for their needs. I remember a man talking about how he started out with only a few chickens and now he has hundreds of chickens. And he was so grateful. It's amazing what a few hundred dollars can do. And it's amazing to me that the widows we met in the IDP camps in Northern Uganda sat us down, fed us, danced for us, and brought us their financial books to show how they've spent and begun to pay back the funds provided to them through micro-loans by ALARM. Wow! They bought an ox and are growing their own food. What a completely different world than the one I live in.

With two weeks to go, there's much to pray for. Click here for a prayer calender with requests of what you can pray each day during the month of July.

Other things you can pray for specifically for me would be about my work. Being self-employed it's tough to take 8 days off without pay. You can pray that I'd be diligent to get projects done before I go and diligent to assign projects to my assistant and my other writers this month so that what needs to be done in my absence doesn't just sit at a stand still until August. Along those lines, you can also pray for my heart upon "re-entry" to the States. After the last trip it was very difficult to come home, re-adjust to my life here and find the energy and will to sit down at a desk again 8 hours a day.

I am grateful for your prayers. Thank you!

These next few weeks I will pack, prepare, ponder what's to come and anxiously await the day I get on a plane to Africa. I'm grateful that you and many others have helped send me. I could never have done this on my own. Your generous gifts and prayers have truly blessed me.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Prayer Request

modified from a prayer request sent by e-mail this morning...

Please join in prayer for the 29 single adults from Watermark going to Makamba, Burundi to build a hospital facility at a medical clinic that an earlier team visited in Spring 2008, while teaching in Burundi. Our first team will be traveling July 11-21 with the second team traveling July 18-28.

Makamba is in far southern Burundi near the Tanzania border. The teams will be working alongside local laborers to build a facility to care for the local town population of about 80,000 people. This population was about 20,000 a couple years ago, but has ballooned as refugees move back from Tanzania where they lived during the civil war and genocide. The medical clinic will be a 16-room facility measuring 4,500 square feet. Our teams will also put on a sports camp at the fields immediately bordering the clinic.

Please pray for the safety, unity and health of the team members, that Christ would be exalted through our efforts, that we would draw closer to Him and that the following would be spoken of our efforts in His name:

Matthew 25:34-40
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

It is amazing to me what Watermark is undertaking to support ALARM in Africa. We have another team of 20 returning to Burundi & Uganda to teach in September and two more trips planned for October and January. It's not about Watermark, though. These are just people who have a heart for God and God's people and want to see recovery, reconciliation and peace among them. I heard recently about one of the leaders of ALARM who was in Darfur when war broke out just a few days ago. He's no stranger to war or violence, but to hear, even minimally, of what he risks every day to fight for reconciliation among the African people and the spread of God's truth is remarkable.

We leave three weeks from Friday. Wow! Grateful for your prayers.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Countdown is On!

Dear friends and family,

The countdown is on. I leave for Burundi in 43 days. Our plane tickets are purchased, our immunizations are all done (thankfully I didn’t have to get a whole round of new ones, just a follow-up Hepatitis A&B), and we are starting to talk about packing lists, work projects, gifts for our hosts and hostesses and I’m trying to remember how in the world I was able to stay a vegetarian for all those days on my last trip. :)

But truly, more than all that, there’s lots to think about and prepare in my heart to visit a country that’s experienced such tragedy. Our team watched the movie “War Dance”, which tells the story of a handful of refugee children from the Acholi tribe in Northern Uganda and their experience recovering from the war in their nation (there’s a really positive aspect to their story as well as they go to the big city to compete in a national musical festival…thus the “dance” component of the title). Many of these children lost parents or siblings and have experienced unspeakable, horrific things that most Americas wouldn’t allow their children to watch on TV or in movies. What struck me about the movie was how, when asked, the children were so willing to talk of these horrors and show their emotions…and how unwilling the adults were to talk about what had happened to them. They must be doing what they have to in order to survive. Putting those horrible images and grief away (as much as they can) to function in their daily lives. One of the reasons we are going to Burundi is to remind the people that they have not been forgotten by the world…or by God.

From what I’ve seen, life in Burundi is about a lot of hard work, walking many miles to school (if you get to go to school), walking many miles for clean water, farming, cooking, caring for children. Lots to do every day. It’s simple, but very demanding. I’m not sure how they do all that they do.

Another purpose for our trip is to help build a medical clinic for those living in a province of about 80,000 people. In that area, there is currently one medical clinic. And from the pictures I’ve seen, it has six beds. Six beds for 80,000 people. The beds don’t have mattresses or bedding, so I’ve heard that if you are sick and need to go to the clinic you take your own mattress, strap it on your bike (if you have one) and ride however many miles it is to the clinic. That sounds difficult to do even if you were not sick! We have two women going on our team that have medical training so who knows what they’ll encounter as far as being able to provide treatment for the local people. The rest of us will build the new clinic. Yes, me on a construction project! I can only imagine. We also hope to stir up some spontaneous soccer games with kids in a local field (yes, me playing soccer...oh and did I mention, the women will all be wearing below the knee-length skirts and, at least for the construction part of the day, hiking boots or athletic shoes!! American of me to worry about things like that.) We'll also just spend time getting to know the local people. Their tribal language is Kirundi; those who are educated beyond 5th grade may know some French. For the most part, we’ll use translators to communicate. But despite the language barrier, I hope that our time and with them will communicate Christ’s love for them.

So much is unknown…and we will likely experience much that is unexpected…but I’m excited for the adventure that lies ahead. I covet your prayers for my preparations…mostly for my heart to be willing and open to whatever we face, but also for our travel, health, rest and ability to encourage a people who so greatly need it. I’m accustomed to understanding how, even in a small way, to comfort someone who is visibly grieving. What I struggle with is knowing how to comfort someone who has experienced such tragedy that they are unable to express their emotions. May my heart be sensitive and willing to reach out to anyone, regardless of the mask they might wear.

Thank you to so many of you who have already given to support this trip. The generosity of both friends and family has been overwhelming. I am truly grateful.

If you were planning to give, I realize I haven’t done a very good job of communicating my deadlines. If you already gave, your support helped cover my travel expenses to and from Burundi. 24 hours of flying (and layovers) is a serious deal! I’m grateful that was covered by the first deadline in May. I still need to raise about $500 to cover the rest of the expenses for the trip. Our final deadline for all contributions is June 13th…so there’s still time if you wish to give. Read on for more information about where to send the check.

I do plan to update this blog weekly until I leave. I promise to get some photos from the September trip up here soon! While we’re gone, I won’t likely have access (or time) to get online so you won’t hear from me between July 18-28th, but once I’m back in the country with a little bit of rest, you’ll certainly see my photos and reflections from the trip.

Thank you again so much for your support – both prayers and financially. Or, as they say in Burundi, Murakoze cyane!


P.S. Checks can be made out to Watermark Community Church. Please mail to me (to arrive by June 13th) to:

Merritt Olsen
9622 Lanward Drive
Dallas, TX 75238

Many thanks!