As our service year came to an end, all of the Malaysia YAGMs met one last time for our final retreat. We each made our way to Sandakan (the east coast of Sabah) to spend three days together in the rainforest on the Kinabatangan River.
The physical space was beyond beautiful (I have a few hundred more pictures with which to back up that statement should anyone be interested when I return!) but my head space was one of overwhelmed confusion, anxiety, sadness and let’s just throw excitement in there to keep it interesting.
The wound of having just left Jireh Home, my family and my home, was still incredibly fresh and I was struggling with (refusing to accept) the fact that I would not be returning. Tuaran is no longer my home. Although I obviously knew all along that this arrangement was only meant to last a year, during my time here it never felt temporary. Malaysia and Jireh Home felt like ‘it’. The end all be all. I was so immersed in my home there, that it became just that: home.
And so as the group cruised along the Kinabatangan checking out all the Proboscis monkeys (the fascinating little guys found only in this region of Sabah) I took in the sites while simultaneously aching to go ‘home’ at the end of it all. I was finding it impossible, and quite tiring to keep trying let’s be honest, to wrap my head around what it all meant and how to move forward.
How did Jireh Home already feel a so far away? How was it still the place I think of as home? How do I assimilate my new family that I made this into my life on a bigger scale outside of Malaysia? How do I return to my family back in America? In what fashion will I maintain the relationships I made? Can I maintain the relationships I made? If I am excited about going back to America does that mean I am excited to leave Malaysia? If I am sad to leave Malaysia does that mean I am sad at the thought of returning to my family in America? How could this life have been temporary? How do I savor and maintain the experience and its resulting changes within me while gracefully saying goodbye? How do I say ‘goodbye’ to my whole life? How do I accept that this wasn’t my whole life? How do I go home to my family? How do I leave my family?
Needless to say I had a headache for most of the retreat. I was constantly racking my brain trying to make sense of what my YAGM year has been, what it means, what it will mean, and now that it is over how will it fit into the bigger picture. I had never thought of it as a chapter in a bigger book. Like I said, from within my time in Malaysia the before and after seemed to disappear. There was only the now. And now that I have the luxury of hindsight, I realize I am so very thankful for that attitude, even though it has made leaving even more gut wrenching that it could have been otherwise.
I made a dedicated effort to integrate myself into the Jireh Home community, and in return I was taken in whole-heartedly by the people who over time morphed into my family. I was present this year. Physically, mentally, and emotionally present. I have a nasty habit of brooding over the past and longing for the future, but not here. Truthfully, it’s impossible to long to be anywhere but exactly where you are when you are surrounded by 31 of the world’s greatest kids and the best friends you could hope to find…..so that helped! And so this year I, and the people I love so much, lived in the now.
And so as saying goodbye, to people, places, and a way of life, leaves me in state of utter despair (which at the time seems to offer no hope of ceasing) I am more so overwhelmed by a feeling a gratitude. I am so grateful that saying goodbye has been this hard, because it is proof that I loved and was loved. Proof that my family at Jireh Home and I truly made a life together. Proof that I really do have two new best friends. Proof that I now have 31 little brother and sisters. Proof that this year, this chapter if you will, will forever be a part of the bigger picture.
Being overcome by sadness now is simply proof that I have been overcome by so much happiness in my life here in Malaysia.
Fortunately as I repeatedly fell to pieces, sulked, and went thru fits of laughter the amazing YAGM crew was there to accompany me! And accompany each other we did….all year long.
The YAGM Malaysia crew at our Farewell dinner with the Bishop and BCCM leaders. Last night together!
Saying goodbye to Jireh Home will not be easy no matter how I spin it. I have been preparing for tomorrow, my last day, for weeks now. And although I have stocked up on mental toughness, I know it will still be an emotionally trying day.
Today, however, I found out that much of mine and some of my other Jireh Home family members’ preparations for goodbye have been in vain. Kisa, my co-worker and one of my best friends, got urgent family news today. As a result she must leave Jireh Home tonight along with Sufiana and Jasrin, her niece and nephew, to take the long journey home to Pulau Banggi.
And so Kisa and I had to say goodbye a day earlier than expected. I said goodbye to one of the people who showed me more love in one year than I have seen in my lifetime thus far. Someone who has been my confidant throughout my time here. Someone who I have grown to admire more than words can say. Someone who has become a best friend. Someone I am sure God intended for me to know.
I ask you to please keep Kisa and her family in your prayers during this time. And please keep the safety of Kisa, Sufiana and Jasrin in your thoughts as they travel home.
I love you the most, Kisa. Always and forever.
Let me tell you something about this little ten year-old, he could stare at a wall and watch paint and it would be funny. Kevin is the most hysterical boy I have ever met in my whole life!
One of my favorite memories of Kevin is going for runs together. Sometimes in the evenings I bring some of the kids jogging with me. Most of them just dart around acting crazy, but Kevin likes to stick with me and keep a nice paced jog. But every so often we have to stop so Kevin can shake the rocks out of his yellow Angry Birds crocs. It is impossible to be in Kevin’s presence and not be smiling!
Sufiana is the very youngest girl here at Jireh Home, being nine years old. She is also Kisa’s, one of the female staff members and my best friend, niece.
It’s difficult for me to remember the time, but for the first few months I was at Jireh Home Sufiana was too shy (or straight scared) to talk to me. Now we have a little not-so-secret handshake that we do everyday when she comes home from school that ends with touching each other’s noses and saying “kamu cantik” which means “You are beautiful”. I could not be more thankful that Sufiana either overcame her shyness, or I became less scary.
Litzia is one of the youngest girls here and needless to say, completely adorable. There are few people here at Jireh Home who have a smile on their face more so than Litzia. She is always happy to be where she is, and she is happy to share the moment with those around her.
Litzia is also very hard working when it comes to her school work and even her work for mine and Pascal’s English classes. And I absolutely love practicing little conversations with her!
As our year winds down here in Malaysia (I only have 2 weeks left at Jireh Home!!!) our Country Coordinator, Peter, asked each of the YAGMs to share a story about the year. Something we learned or maybe a way that we have been transformed throughout our time here. This is my story.
My story is the story of a girl named Lebiana. Being one of nineteen children who comes from a family on the outskirts of an already small rural village outside of Kota Marudu, Malaysia she is a girl that I had a small chance of ever meeting. But now she is my best friend. Considering her background, hers is a story that many people wouldn’t see value in learning. But I know her story now, and she has forever changed mine.
Lebiana is the third youngest of her father’s nineteen children. And like with any siblings, there are some she is closer with and some she is constantly at odds with. Being that there are nineteen of them all living in close quarters, it’s like standard sibling rivalry on steroids! In attempts to help out her large family, Lebiana used to walk through her village selling fruit she picked herself for a small price. During school holidays she would work twelve-hour days in nearby rice paddies to bring home what I would call less than meager compensation. Although she scored well on her final school exams, Lebiana didn’t have the means to continue her studies so instead she works at Jireh Home where she tries tirelessly to encourage other kids to take advantage of the opportunities she never had. She works to provide to for herself, but she uses any extra money to spoil those around without a second thought. She is perhaps one of the most generous and selfless people I know, although she hides it well with her sarcasm and toughness. But that tenacity is both a byproduct of her life thus far and also one of the key reasons she has made so much of herself. She doesn’t have time for being shy or walking on eggshells around people, she tells it like it is and she always manages to tell it with a hilarious spin. She is the perfect combination confidence and grace. Oh and the other day she also shared that her uncle was one of the politicians present to officiate Malaysia’s independence from Britain. As if her life story needed that last catch to make it extraordinary.
Before I met Lebiana it would have been of no consequence to me to lump her in that general “People who live in Borneo” category or even just “Asians” and never have looked deeper into her as an individual. It is easy to look at unfamiliar groups of people as nothing more than a collective sum. Their stories are a dime a dozen, most likely all the same and certainly not worth knowing. At times it’s surprising to even remember we share the world with so many people.
But they all do have a story. And their stories are worth learning. Lebiana’s story is worth learning. Everyone’s story is worth learning. And your story is worth sharing.
I was awestruck at how crazy awesome Lebiana’s life has been, how amazing it is that she has done so much and been part of so many things. How surreal to think that so many other incredible people with incredible stories are out there, so many people who could change my story and change me like Lebiana has. That there might be someone who’s story I could change by sharing my own.
It would be illogical to think that any of us could meet every person in this world and learn his or her story. But what we can do is open our eyes and seize the opportunities we are given to make sure we don’t let any potential people or stories slip by. We can make our story one worth learning, by being the best us we can be and by allowing as many other stories to write parts of ours.
I have learned this year that every one on this planet is both one of billions and one in a billion. Our stories are shaped equally by the two contexts and we can’t truly appreciate the world or ourselves until we recognize them both.
Sargahan is in his last year of primary school, and unnaturally strong for a 12 year old! I always forget that when I try to pester him. He and I only have a shared vocabulary of maybe one hundred words, but despite our limited verbal communication Sargahan has become one of closest friends among the kids here. And I don’t need words to know what a special and awesome person he is.
On that note, he also misjudged his depth perception one Sunday at church and decked me in the nose. However, in true Sargahan fashion, that Monday when I asked each of the kids the customary ‘what did you do this weekend?’ question, Sargahan’s sentence was “This weekend I punched Sister Jacki in the nose.” I couldn’t even get mad, it was perfect English. Only Sargahan.
Here we have Elisnah! Other people call her by her nickname, Ading, but I just call her Pumpkin :)
Elisnah, my pumpkin, is sixteen and, in my humble opinion, perfect. She is super outgoing and gutsy. Elisnah has the courage to be funny and quirky in an environment when shy and demure are more the norm. She is one of the bravest girls I know and I find myself admiring her demeanor all the time.
Marttyus is one of the primary school boys here, which is seemingly synonymous with one of the funniest boys here. Although he is perhaps the quietest of group, that is the same comparison as say the calmest hurricane-it’s still a raging storm.
Marttyus makes the goofiest funny faces of anyone I know and we love to face off in funny face wars. Shockingly, this guy always wins :)
While the YAGMs were in Thailand a few weeks back we were fortunate to have the opportunity to visit The New Life Center. This is an amazing place that works with women in Thailand who are at risk of becoming or have already been victims of human trafficking. The center describes its mission as the following, “To empower and equip at-risk or exploited tribal women through education and training, in order to create positive change in their lives and in society.”
(I have included a link to their website and I would highly encourage anyone to check it out and learn more about the work The New Life Center is doing. And for all of you back home at CRLC, the center is also a recipient of ELCA funding so it’s a great chance to see how your donations to the church are helping to make change!)
The YAGMs got to meet some of the girls living there now, explore the facilities, and eat lunch with the girls after they finished their schooling for the day. We also got to spend the whole morning with the center’s director, Karen Smith. She shared background information on the situation of tribal people in Thailand, along with stories about some of the girls who have come to The New Life Center. Listening to her words gave me an almost tangible sense of being far away from my home and the world as I once knew it. Hearing about the lives these girls have led and the circumstances within which they have grown up reignited in me the passion to serve, the passion to help those that the world has left helpless. I felt an overwhelming sense of compassion for the girls Karen was describing and an urge to offer any comfort and love I could manage for these women who had been so victimized.
And then Karen told us another story about these “victims” for whom I was internally demanding assistance and justice. Karen told us how the girls help organize and carry out programs to warn other girls like themselves of the signs and dangers of trafficking. They go out into the rural villages that many informational campaigns don’t reach and put on skits to illustrate situations that might seem legitimate, but are really gateways to forced labor. One year they even ran a sixteen-week radio program about the same thing. They wrote it out in the form of a soap opera and used the characters to demonstrate the warning signs of trafficking as well as the realities of living within it.
I was speechless. These are girls who I just minutes ago believed were the epitome of a population in need, true victims of the result of so many forces at play, the prime example of the need for service and social justice. And here they are being the ones to serve, being the ones to use any resource they have to make sure another girl doesn’t experience what they already have, being advocates for social justice, trying to protect future victims.
While we were in Thailand we talked about Hope. Where does one find hope in a hopeless situation? Where does each of us YAGMs find hope in the communities we serve? Where do we find hope in the world as a whole? For me, I found hope right there at The New Life Center. I found more hope than I could carry in the fact that women who by all means earned the position of victim and right to help and support were not taking on that role or even justifiably giving up. No, they were dedicating themselves to saving others, preventing repetition of their stories, ending the cycle of human trafficking. They didn’t only see the evil and the unfairness in the world, they chose to see the love and the hope as well.
Since we came back from Thailand I have seen the same behavior in my kids here at Jireh Home. Kids who in layman’s terms got the short end of the stick in life. They were dealt a rough hand and certainly deserve the assistance that Jireh Home offers them. But as they prepared to go home for their villages for school holiday at the end of May, they did not stock up on as many Jireh Home freebies for themselves as possible. They did stock up with Jireh Home’s consent, but it was with extra food, clothes and trinkets for their sisters, brothers and family. They are well aware of the good fortune that comes with being a Jireh Home kid, but instead of taking advantage of that they share it in hopes of that good fortune reaching as many people as possible. The kids here don’t simply want to better themselves, they want to better others as well. They are in a position to take, but they choose to give instead. Much like the women at New Life Center who are in a position to be served, but instead choose to serve.
These stories bring to mind a line from my favorite Jackson Browne song, “Rock Me on the Water.” As we look at a world bursting at the seams with poverty, injustice, disease, greed and seeming helplessness I remember Browne’s words:
“Oh people, look among you. It’s there your hope must lie.”
And much like I have in the women I met in Thailand and the children here at Jireh Home, may we always find that hope in each other.
Marie is 18 years old and in her final year of Secondary School, which means lots of studying for her final exams at the end of the year. The exams will determine both if she can continue her schooling and which institutions she might be able to study at.
My absolute favorite thing about Marie is her laugh! If Marie laughs, it’s a guarantee you will laugh too…it’s contagious. And she laughs all the time because she is probably the most easily startled person in the world. Even if you give her an explicit forewarning that you are about to scare her pants off, she will still scream and laugh her buntut off when you do!