Gumbo Ya-Ya

I am living in the New Orleans area once again. Sometimes, it feels like nothing has changed in the decade or so that I lived abroad. The Saints are losing, the weather is hot, and the last mayor is in federal prison. The murder rate is horrific, as the rate of black young males killing each other is a daily feature in the headlines.

Yet, things are different. Hurricane Katrina was not our demise, as many predicted. Many blighted areas of the city are better than before the storm. The public school system, once on par with third-world countries, is a stellar example to many poorer cities of educational reform.

Tourism is stronger than ever as the Quarter has stayed clean and vibrant, shedding some of the seedy bars and t-shirt shops that sprang up in the 70s. It’s also cleaner in terms of trash. Why, it even smells decent most days!

Another sign of the changing times is the increased racial diversity of the city. The city lost more black residents than white over the past 10 years since the Big One, Katrina. The city still retains a black majority but it’s a thin one.

Yet, it’s not only white residents moving to the Big Easy. Latinos and Asians have had the biggest impact on the cultural scene, especially in terms of food. In fact, Vietnamese cuisine is one of the hottest fads in the city today. The descendants of Vietnam War refugees have carved out a place for themselves with unique fare, often melding our storied cultural recipes with new vigor. For instance, Shrimp Creole is turning up all over the city in a new form, with lemon grass and Vietnamese spicy tomato paste combined with a white roux and Gulf shrimp. John Besh’s recipe is the most popular.

Hondurans flocked to the city after Hurricane Katrina as roofers, laborers, and yes, cooks. Their food trucks became increasingly popular after the storm, so much so that restaurateurs lobbied to shut them down. As most immigrants do, they were quick to improvise. A large community of Hondurans live near the New Orleans International Airport. Businesses operated by Hondurans are  often multi-service centers: cafes, grocery stores and places to send money home to relatives. Don’t get me started on the wonderful new world of pupusas, platanos, and tamales. They are here to stay, I think.

The city is famous for melding cultural influences into great food. Gumbo, the famous dish of our region, combines French, Spanish and African traditions.  What about jambalaya? I love jambalaya in almost any form as long as the spice doesn’t overpower the celery, green peppers, shrimp, sausage and or whatever other magic is thrown into the rice pot.

Oh, but they are the naysayers who hate to see the city or the nation embrace new immigrants. Immigrants bring crime! Immigrants won’t assimilate! Immigrants want to change the laws! (Can we hear the Trump bandwagon, with echoes of Alabama’s Wallace fear-mongering?)

Well, in New Orleans at least, it’s the people who have been here for generations who are murdering, selling drugs and committing armed robberies. Most immigrants I have encountered in this city acquire English quickly, usually the main language of the second generation. They are usually hard-working, entreprenurials and family-oriented.

Have we learned nothing from the xenophobia of previous generations?

Who built the Irish Canal in the upper Garden District? The abused, hated, and vilified Irish who moved here over 100 yearas ago rarely could find other work than ditch-digging and other menial labor. New Orleanians do not like to face the facts why the Irish left so few descendants here. They died like slaves digging canals that even free black men refused this work.

What about the  Italian Central Grocery who gave us the fabulous muffaletta? The immigrants ate those olive loaves on the wharves of the Mississippi River because carrying cargo on their backs was often the only work they were allowed to take. Little by little, Italians purchased cargo from ships and sold it on the streets of the city. Then, they opened restaurants all over the city, but it started with carting it on their backs over a century ago.

Yes, we need immigration reform. No doubt it’s needed. But let’s not kid ourselves. Our city, our nation and our world profits greatly when we accept each other, learn from one another, and yes, eat at each other’s tables.

I have no doubt that the presidential cycle will produce no end to what we call “gumbo ya-ya,” which means everyone talking at once. I hope that some of the ya-ya will be intelligent, cogent and helpful. We need to find a way to welcome immigrants and refugees as we seek a path of immigration reform.

If You Want To Go Far

african proverb
African Proverb

I was waiting in the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. The words in the picture above were emblazoned in large script across a wall within the terminal. I was two days in a two-week journey. I would have to go much farther to reach the intended destination, with two more airplane trips before reaching our place in  Zambia.

I reached my destination. And the proverb proved true. I managed quite well because I didn’t travel alone.

Perhaps the most difficult part of doing non-profit work abroad is working with other people, whether that be with other expatriates or nationals. I think it’s harder than language acquisition, cultural understanding, or raising funds.

I never lived in Africa, but I like the quote. I did live in Honduras a number of years. Building relationship with the locals who helped me in my work was probably the most important thing I ever accomplished.

When the ladies who started off with a broom or a cleaning rag realized they were a valued part of a team, the work began to take a life of its own. It wasn’t dependent on the crazed zeal of a white woman  – me! – from the States who wanted to feed and educate their children. The staff began to see that it was their choices and work that was changing the community around them.

I know that everyone tired of hearing me preach and screech about the importance of el equipo, the team. Somehow, someway, during the years I was there, we changed the dynamic from boss and underlings to a group of ladies who had taken ownership of the ministry.

Now, I have some perspective on my time in Honduras. I can see that teamwork both between persons differing cultures as well as those within the national culture is hard but fruitful work. Even short-term trips require lots of teamwork on everyone’s part for a successful trip.

Traveling far can mean traveling home, too. That’s where I am in my personal journey. I hope I can remember that I want to travel far, not fast; with others, not alone.

This post is linked to Velvet Ashes, a website devoted to encouragement for women serving overseas.

Velvet Ashes: encouragement for women serving overseas

What On Earth Am I Doing Here?

first grade me
First grade me

When I was six years old, I recall a discussion between my mother and father. I was seated in the back seat of the Buick, and my parents were concerned about the new school term. In a few months, I would begin the first grade in pubic school. For the first time in history, blacks and whites would share the same classroom in our small Louisiana town. My parents had some misgivings about what may happen in 1969.

To my parents’ surprise, I spoke up.

“I believe integration is the right thing,” I said confidently from the back seat.

I had been uttering high falutin’ words since I started talking. No one was surprised by that. It was my words afterwards that left quite the impression.

I don’t recall the rest of the conversation, but my mom said I delivered quite the civil rights discourse from the back seat. My parents at the time were Southern Democrats, who believed that the separation of races was the American way. According to mother, my little speech convinced my father that I would be alright, and even perhaps, our little village would be just fine if the few black and Native American families sent their little ones to school with the rest of us.

And so it was.

I did not grow up to be a civil rights lawyer.

I did however grow in my conviction to be a voice for the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the outcast, the neglected ones in society. My beliefs led to career choices such as working with at-risk students, learning disabled children, emotionally disturbed children, the homeless, and the poor in Mexico and Honduras.

I believe that everyone has a calling, a sense of what their purpose in life should be. It may be multiple things – mother, wife, teacher, choir member, and any number of career paths. For the Christian, I don’t think it always mean one specific thing, either.

Rather, I follow general principles that serve as my framework for life’s choices.

1. The servant is not higher than the master. Jesus uttered these words to his disciples in Matthew 10:24.  Jesus came to serve, and so must I. This statement also implies that I serve the master first.

2. The one lost sheep is just as important, if not more so, than the other 99 who are in safety. Matthew 18:12 is a profound example of Jesus’ perspective of looking out for the ones in danger and not playing it safe in this life. Looking for the One Sheep is an  adventure that can yield the most marvelous friendships with people you may never encounter unless you are looking for the One Sheep.

3. Humility yields better position than self-promotion. Everyone agrees with this idea in theory, but it’s harder to put into practice. I am afraid I have violated that a bit in my years in Honduras in my desire to see our ragamuffin ministry receive funding and prayer support. In the end, though, it’s best to take the lowest seat at the table.

4. Be happy along the way. If I want to finish life well, finding enjoyment in my work and life is very important. Religion doesn’t mean putting aside everything that’s fun and enjoyable. A few nights ago, for instance, I shared a pizza and beer with a few friends. We laughed until we cried. I wasn’t inebriated. I just had a good time.

This post is linked to Velvet Ashes, a site devoted to helping women who feel called to serve in other countries. Follow the link to Velvet Ashes to read more.velvet-ashes

Can You Hear It?

Colossians 1:15-20 is referred to as a Christ hymn, possibly sung by the early church as a song of praise for Christ’s supremacy. Rich Little

I stumbled across this video created by Imago Dei.  It’s only in the past 100 years or so that many folks read, rather than heard, the Bible’s words. Now, millennials in the Western world are less apt to hear or read the Bible than previous generations.

What do you hear when these verses are spoken? I hear God, in Christ, is more than I can put into words. He’s first, he’s exalted, and he’s the stuff that holds it all together. Because of Him, all other things fall into the proper place.


Cold Comfort

The contributors at Velvet Ashes are talking about the topic, comfort, this week. They invite our comments as well as our blog posts later this evening as they open the discussion for readers to contribute. Since the site’s primary audience is expatriate women, I suppose they are considering the tangible comforts of the United States that they lack in their country of residence. Of course, we must consider the intangible as well. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is sometimes called The Comforter.

It’s cold out today, even in Louisiana. We are having a cold spell, as is most of the southern and eastern United States. It’s not dangerous here, as we haven’t any ice or snow to complicate matters. The weather is simply uncomfortable for most of us who rarely have winter temperatures below the freezing mark.

A friend remarked this morning that she wasn’t comfortable getting out until the temperatures were higher than her age. Since I am in my early 50s, I suppose I can leave the house in the early afternoon, according to that standard.  She’s a bit older, so she may have to stay home another day or two, until things return to normal in Louisiana.

I suppose what I want to end with is that comfort is a relative thing, isn’t it? Some things are more comfortable in the US, where we are accustomed to things being as they should be in our country of birth. On the other hand, it’s quite comfortable to live in semitropics sometimes, such as in higher elevations of Central America, where I generally lived always between the low 80s to the upper 60s.

At any rate, let’s think about comfort today. Join me tonight or tomorrow morning for more thoughts on comfort.


Building Dreams With Our Hands: Translated from Spanish

There were noises near the front of the house. People were beating on the door, trying to get in. Why wasn’t the dog barking? Then I realized it was a bad dream. There wasn’t a mob at the door, pushing to get in.

Perhaps, I can blame late-night television viewing. I am not sure if watching The Walking Dead after 11:00 pm is a good idea. Whatever the cause, it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t real.

Some dreams are not entirely imaginary. We call those daydreams, or some, ideals we wish were true. Maybe we dream of a perfect lover, friend, or spouse, or on a more broader level, a world without suffering, starvation, or want.

Considering the state of current events lately, I don’t know if the latter is likely. It seems evil is quite prevalent, palpable and frightening as we watch beheadings, killings, and wars unfold in real-time on our computers or televisions.

But what is our response? For many, it seems to call for more of the same. We desire righteous wrath on the evildoers.

What if we had a better ideal in mind? What if we embraced the outrageously, seemingly impossible way of Christ. What if we actually turned the proverbial other cheek, not reacting in violence and fear? What if we loved our enemies as He commanded?

Blessed are the peace-makers, Jesus said.

How I learned to stop worrying and learned to love the Spanish language

Somewhere in our collective memory, we have a story of a North American who visits ______ (Mexico, Peru, or wherever). The person, usually an attractive young woman, stands in a crowded stadium and shouts out a cheer, only to realize belatedly she yelled out a slang word for a female body part, not the cheer she thought she knew. The collective crowd of tens of thousands instantly yank their heads in her direction as her companions yank her down to her seat.

She knows the sole remedy is to return home, take the veil, and enter a cloistered community. Her life as tourist/volunteer/missionary or whatever she thought she was doing outside of English-speaking regions is over. Her life will now be devoted to knitting woolen booties for orphans in an windowless cell.

The story has endless variations, with gender, language and occasion changing. The result is always the same. Never, ever, ever will the naive English speaker attempt speaking a foreign language again.

I lived in Honduras for almost a decade. I have uttered a lifetime of embarrassing phrases in Spanish in less than 10 years. I have asked a young boy to show me his breast, rather than his chest. I once spoke that I was full of human waste, not fear. I suspect there are many, many things that I said that I haven’t been told because I have kind, merciful friends there.

Despite being overly aware of my language deficiencies in my first years in Honduras, I realized that at some point,  I was using Spanish all of my working hours. I could converse with my co-workers, bank tellers, grocery store clerks. When I got home, I often didn’t switch to English right away. Even the dog became bilingual.

Am I as good as a native? No, I am not even close. Spanish has at least fourteen verb conjugations for each verb. I  understand half of those, and speak almost half of that number, which means I exist mainly the present tense when using Spanish.

What was the key to my success, albeit modest success, in conquering a foreign language? I stopped worrying and started speaking at every opportunity. I used what little language instruction I had received, and I applied it as best I could.

Language is fraught with opportunities, both good and bad, for communication. It can unite us, divide us. It can bring information that saves or bring news of disaster upon us. We depend upon language to stave off isolation and build community.

My language lesson today for anyone reading is quite simple. Don’t worry. Embrace the experience of learning a language, whatever the results may yield. One day you will realize you have some success. Why even your dog will understand you. He will sit steadfastly when you say, “come,” in any language you choose.

This post is linked to Velvet Ashes, a forum for women serving overseas.

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Stirring the Pot: A Weekend Medley

In just aSacred-Drunken-Wookiee-Original2 few hours, I will be in a different land: the land of Mardi Gras. I am driving from the ‘burbs straight into the decadence of New Orleans. We are going to view what could be argued as the most ridiculous crew this year: The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus. Long live the Wookie!

Today, I ran across a map published by Tufts Magazine that explains somewhat why I don’t fit in sometimes with the button-up missionary types I meet at conferences.  Someone with too much time on his hands arranged a map of much of North America according to regional differences, showing each locale as a separate nation based on ethnic origins and cultural patterns.

American nationsThis map explains a lot. I am not a redneck, nor an Appalachian. I am a native of New France. I didn’t grow up on boiled peanuts and corn pone, nor moonshine. When I grew up, we had good food, and we could drink openly.

I found a new website that some of you may like, especially if you are a woman living abroad. It’s called Velvet Ashes. The current post is about thriving, and readers are asked to submit comments or stories about what it takes to thrive, especially in relation to living abroad.

See ya’ next time I serve up something at the Gumbo Pot.