Mission Life: Month 6

Six down, six to go!

We are officially halfway through our year of mission. It continues to be bittersweet as we are literally right in the middle of both feeling sad to leave the people here, but so excited to see our friends and families again! This month we have been able to witness some history making events here in southern Africa. We spent a week in Johannesburg attending meetings there. While we were we were able to witness the sadness of a nation at the loss of Winnie Mandela. The funeral and services took place while we were in Johannesburg and although we did not attend just being present and watching the news coverage was very impactful. Once back in Swaziland we were able to be here for the big 50/50 celebration in which King Mswati III celebrated his 50th birthday as well as the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence. This was celebrated by the King announcing the change of the country’s name from the English Swaziland to Eswatini. The celebration took place in Manzini where we live, but due to a big project deadline we were unable to attend. We did however step outside to see the planes flying over performing as well as the fireworks show.

Life is Eswatini continues to go well. We spent a big portion of the month working to finalize the big project mentioned above which would be a great help to the whole southern African province if it were to be accepted. Please keep that in your prayers as Josiah especially has worked so hard from the time we arrived basically to try and make this a reality and it certainly hasn’t been easy.

The kids have been out of school for the past few weeks due to their semester break so it has been quiet around Salesian High and we are missing them! I was able to give a talk at Father Martin’s level two leadership workshops for approximately 76 students in which I spoke about servant leadership. Public speaking is not my strong suit, but I really enjoyed being a part of the work he is doing there. One of my visits to Hope House this month also resulted in the ladies there insisting I get dressed in full Eswatini attire for them. It was a lot of fun and they seemed to get a lot of smiles out of it! Unfortunately we have been having difficulty with phone chargers and our phones were dead meaning I don't have any photos! The ladies took a few so I will try to get them to share next month!

Due to the lack of basketball equipment and Josiah’s dedication to the game the principal of Salesian High reached out to some of the past pupils and asked for some basketballs which were presented to Josiah for the team at one of the weekly assemblies. We were able to use these for another game for the boys which went really well. We also got to host a group of youth from the Netherlands with a Salesian program called streetwise which consists of past street youth as well as volunteers from the Netherlands as they visit Eswatini and our boys from Salesian Manzini Youth Care.

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In other news being married on mission and living with a religious community has its challenges. We find it difficult at times to balance spending time with the community who we came here to work with and to find time for ourselves. However they are very understanding here and encouraged us to start taking some regular time away for ourselves. We took them up on that offer this month and spent a long weekend about 30 minutes down the road at a beautiful air B&B where we were able to relax and refresh. We’ve also been able to take a few very nice hikes where we ran into zebra and monkeys along the way!

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As we begin our countdown to coming back to the United States please continue to keep us, the Salesians, the people of Eswatini, South Africa, and Lesotho, and all those who are trying to help in your prayers!

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Happy Easter! Mission Life: Month 5

So quickly time comes and goes. In one sense it seems it was just yesterday we were boarding the plane for Africa and in another it seems like we still have so long until we get to see all your beautiful faces that it hurts! However, we are very much enjoying our time here in Swaziland and with each passing day we find ourselves more and more involved with the people we came here to love and the works. Throughout the past month we admittedly have fought homesickness, but oddly enough I think this is bound to come when you start to feel somewhat "at home" in a new place. For a visual of our first full month check out our month 5 video journal below.

We have been able to continue with the basketball team at Salesian High, and I am continuing to work with the girls at St. Anne's High School while we continue writing proposals and reports and doing assessments and making plans for the province. I have also started to visit with the hospice patients at Hope House which is managed by a sister of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians (another Salesian family congregation). Hope House is a beautiful compound full of life and beauty despite the terminal status of most who live there. It is a community of individual homes where patients live with their caregivers in a comfortable setting with medical professionals who can care for them during their last stages of life or in some cases until they are stable enough to return to their homes. This ranges from cancer and AIDS hospice to rehabilitation for those who have suffered a stroke or other illness. Sister Elsa is an amazing sister and nurse and it isn't difficult to see how well the patients who come to Hope House are cared for under her watch. I can't describe how humbling and appreciative a day visiting and talking with these people can make you feel. 

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Along with the above a few of our fellow MYC volunteers completed their time here and have gone back to their homes so in their absence we are beginning to build further relationships with the 48 children in the care of the Salesian Children's Home which are ran by Manzini Youth Care. These children are exceptional! Among them are the head boy of one of the best private schools in Swaziland, a child who scored in the top ten in all of Swaziland academically, numerous musicians who are able to see an instrument for the first time and pick it up as if they have practiced for years, and an athlete who has sprinting times which rival those of a US division one athlete just to name a few. These kids who are considered vulnerable children and have come from being orphaned and on the streets truly are our future and despite their circumstances they will make you very hopeful as with them the future is incredibly bright!

We suffered a few disappointments in trying to schedule games for the basketball boys this month each time resulting in the boys getting excited for a game only to find it was cancelled. We couldn't bear their disappointment one more time so most recently even though the game was cancelled we managed to find some uniforms and arrange for team photos as well as a friendly game between the boys to include uniforms, a score table with a time and score keeper (myself) as well as a referee and coach for both sides (all Josiah) and to arrange benches for both teams as well as water and spectators as their peers stayed on after school to cheer them on. They were admittedly still disappointed about not having an outside game and at first unsure of our idea to play one another on their own turf, but after the game while having PB&J's it was declared "the best day ever at Salesian High School!" and we heard more than one "coach, can we do this again soon?" making it all completely worth it.

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We hope everyone has enjoyed their Lenten season and soaks up all the Easter family festivities! We miss you all very much! Five months down, seven to go; by the next update we will be halfway there! Please continue to pray for us as we pray for you all!

In other news this month I was able to meet the US ambassador for Swaziland as she happened to be sharing her story with the girls at St. Anne's during one of my visits and we also continue to make friends from different parts of the world- most recently a very famous photographer as well as a casting director and producer, all who are also doing wonderful works in the Kingdom of Swaziland. We also attended several cultural events in which we got to watch some of our boys play marimbas and also to experience a "mock" traditional Swazi wedding and wear traditional Swazi attire thanks to our friends from St. Anne's. I can't forget also getting our Swazi visas (for TWO years) and our house rented! On top of this living with a religious community during Lent is very busy and lots of fun, especially when the Bishop rides into church from your house on a donkey! 

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Mission Life: Month 4

I can't believe another month has already passed! I wish I could report we have our visas and are good to go for the rest of our time here, but alas. After no news of our South African appeal and trying to border hop by leaving South Africa and re-entering only to be given a short 7 days and a strict warning (including fingerprints and pictures of us) we made the move to the Kingdom of Swaziland (last absolute monarchy in the world). We applied for visas in country in Swaziland as is customary for Americans and were told to come back in 3 weeks time to retrieve them. Three weeks has come and gone and we went to gather them only to be told one was ready and one was not and therefore we should come back next week. We are hopeful they will both be ready by our next visit to home affairs as our current tourist visas for Swaziland also expire next week...

Aside from this ongoing frustration we are settling in well in Swaziland, are staying very busy and having much more interaction with the kids (which we love). We also live with the community here which offers us increased ability to participate with them in their spiritual exercises.

Some highlights from February aside from the border hopping and move to Swaziland include Josiah being named (after only two days) the basketball coach for Salesian High School here in Manzini. This is a dream come true for him and he is enjoying every second. He is also teaching some of the boys guitar and I am learning table tennis even though they beat me every time! We continue to fill our roles for the Planning and Development office remotely from Swaziland and continue to work on some very exciting projects which will positively impact all 3 countries (South Africa, Losotho, and Swaziland).

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Josiah is also working on heading the recreation for our Enjabulweni Bridging School. This is a wonderful school which allows the children we work with who have been living on the streets to re-initiate in education without humiliation. A lot of our boys are in their teens, but maybe haven't been in school since grade 3 or 4. They would be expected in the public schools to then join traditional grade 3 or 4 students and work their way through school traditionally If they are accepted at all. This then often keeps them from ever pursuing an education once they get behind. The bridging school, however, works with these students to aid in fast tracking them to where they need to be in order to be able to rejoin public school as soon as possible in an age appropriate setting. It's an awesome example of working within your circumstances and seeing a need and finding a way to fill it. That's what I love about the Salesians!

I have been able to meet some beautiful girls from St. Anne's High School in Malkerns, our other Salesian mission location. St. Anne's is managed by one of our Salesian priests, Father Martin, who was instrumental in the organization of the marches to end gender-based violence mentioned in a previous blog. I am going to be able to put my social work and therapy skills to use with the girls there to aid them in overcoming some of the many obstacles they face. Here they're showing off their completion of leadership class with a "certificate selfie."

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I also met some lovely ladies from England who have allowed me to use a sewing machine they are leaving here in Swaziland and have shown me how to make reusable sanitary towels for the St. Anne's girls and other females in the area. I am very excited to be able to help empower these girls and ladies so they no longer have to miss out on life just because they are girls. I think I've even rallied my troops back home to help with this which is very exciting.

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We are also working closely with Salesian Manzini Youth Care which along with the bridging school provides homes for orphaned and vulnerable children. There is much work to be done, but we are very excited to help any way we can while we're here. For fear I've gone on too long I'll leave you with our video journal for February and a few pictures of some of our other adventures!

Please continue to keep us in our prayers! You are in ours! 

Mission Life: Month 3, From the Kingdom of Swaziland

Today, January 31st, we celebrate the feast of Saint John Bosco, the reason we are where we are today. Ironically also on this date our time to “tour” the country of South Africa comes to an end and we find ourselves in The Kingdom of Swaziland. There is much going on here and much to be done as well. We are eternally grateful for the first quarter of our time here. I can’t believe we are already ¼ of the way through our commitment, yet we feel we are just now even beginning to somewhat figure out our place here.

This month’s highlights include the installation of a new provincial for the AFM province, lots of meetings and being able to meet with the University of Johannesburg to start a relationship in which they are now going to send SIX interns to one of our schools; four social workers and two community development majors. These will be invaluable to the school and pending this year’s trial going well we will have the opportunity to expand this to some of our other schools. We also spent a week in Cape Town working on a partnership for a large amount of funding which would greatly advance the goals and work of the province here and have at least temporarily relocated to Swaziland where we have been able to celebrate Don Bosco and the installation of their new Salesian parish priest in Malkerns.

Along with this we are learning the names of a most all the kids we get to spend time with on the weekends in Booysens (whom we will greatly miss if our stay in Swaziland is extended) and they are learning about the Salesians and Don Bosco. In regards to Swaziland however, as I type this there are over 1,000 kids on the campus of Salesian High and Primary schools right outside my window. It is exciting for us to be in Swaziland and around so many kids on a daily basis.

We are trying to grow wherever we are planted, but if you know us you know our love for youth and therefore even though our jobs here greatly impact the services provided to them we miss our direct work with the children so it is very refreshing for us to get to be present with them whenever possible.

I hope you enjoy our month 3 video diary for a little more insight into our day to day lives. It’s certainly not always exciting writing proposals and strategic plans and budgeting and assessing programs, but it is the mission we were given and we are thankful to be able to put our career experiences to use in such a practical way.

The last day of the Novena to John Bosco was for family, friends, and those in need. Know we miss you all and are praying for you as is Don Bosco, especially those of you who care for all the little ones and the little ones we love and miss SO much!

O Saint John Bosco, you were full of compassion toward all people, especially the young, who suffered from illness, poverty, hunger, injustice, and alienation. Pray for all in need, and for us too, that blessings of God and the protection of Mary Help of Christians may be on us all, to heal us, to strengthen us, and to comfort us. Pray for our families, especially for our young people that they may be kept safely in God’s grace. Intercede for us in life and in death so that we may eternally sing the Divine mercies in heaven. -Amen.

More fun January adventures include Josiah's birthday/fun day filled with theme park and movie fun, bio-dance class with the youth at Salesian Life Choices in Cape Town, Josiah climbed Table Mountain with our new friend, Pedro, Vietnamese food with Fathers Peter and John, and we got a personal tour of Father Robert Gore's brother's College of Magic in Cape Town! To learn more about the College of Magic and its unique way of reaching youth and empowering them click here. 

Reflections: The Weight

Life on mission is so filled with blessings. It's also chock full of opportunities to confront new realities. Ups and downs can include everything from being unsure of your day to day duties to not knowing where you're going to live month to month (shout out to Home Affairs). Through it all though there are opportunities for reflection, and for me that reflection is often prompted by music. The other day I was listening to one of my favorite songs, The Weight, by the Band, and the thoughts I've written below came flowing out. They'll give you an idea of some of the mental high notes of doing things you never dreamed you'd do in a place you never dreamed you'd live. If you have a minute extra, listen to Levon and the gang sing this with the Staples Singers. 

"Take a load off Annie"... I'm overcome with childlike optimism. Where can I live? Anywhere. What can I do? Anything. The way I feel is indescribable. It's like you've been given a gift at Christmas that you can turn into anything you choose, at a time of your choosing. 

What a beautiful feeling!

I've been blessed with creativity, with good health, with a perfect wife and family. I'm lifted up to greater heights with each affirmation. Ideas strike me like lightning and I can act like thunder, brashly and decisively. If they don't pan out there's nothing lost. The only loss is never trying. 

How was I born so fortunate? 

This is an infinitely more difficult question. As much as it sounds like a cop out it's true that I will never know that answer. One thing I know is that if we bury our talents we are doomed to suffer the fate of the wicked servant. "For he who has not, even what little he has will be taken from him."

What a paradox.

The best explanation I've received on this biblical instruction is that we must not view this parable in materialistic terms. When we envision the haves and the have nots we're thinking spiritually. "If you are lukewarm I will spit you out of my mouth" Here we are being told in no uncertain terms that God better not come back and find our talents only being used a little. In that unfortunate event, what little we had would be given to those who have everything and have made good on the talents invested in them.

Tomorrow is open. Both the possibilities and the responsibilities are boundless