Friday, February 23, 2018

A Very Unexpected Plan B

I'm having trouble getting pictures up, but something is better than nothing...

Compared the the average person I have traveled a lot.  Now I'm well aware there are people who have traveled a great deal more than me, gone to stranger places, or had bigger adventures, but I have a pretty good reservoir of stories and experiences.  Well, I've now had a travel adventure which is definitely in my "top 5 of crazy travel adventures" list now.

You might have heard that Jesus said don't worry about tomorrow because today has enough problems.  Well, another reason not to worry about tomorrow is because you probably will worry about the wrong thing.  In reality we don't even know what we should be really worry about anyway.  Flying into Delhi for our 36 hour layover before continuing on to Likabali, my biggest concern was transportation from the metro express train station to our hotel.  I knew the way, but I also knew we would be arriving late at night with more luggage than we could manage to carry the final 3/4 mile of that days journey.  I rehersed in my head what it might take to get us into two taxis - directions, price, sticking together, etc... but that never happened - and there was so much more to worry about.

After the 2 1/2  hour process of getting off the plane, getting through immigration, collecting luggage, changing money, and finding the clean and smooth metro express airport train we were on our way - almost to our hotel - almost ready to rest before having a day to explore Delhi - almost...

Stepping out into the near midnight hours of Delhi, there were no taxis to take us to the hotel, but a friendly and willing tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) driver was ready to help, and when the size of our group became apparent, it was two drivers, and then the enormity of our 300+ lbs of luggage was realized, a third tuk-tul was called into service.  And we were off... in the wrong direction.

It certainly seemed they knew the hotel I was asking them about, and I had clearly pointed to its general location, but we turned right out of the lot instead of left.  But after two or three blockes they started a series of right hand turns which restored my confidence and allowed me to rationalized they knew the best way to get to the hotel.  Until they pulled into a seemingly random parking lot...where two other men were waiting...

Immediately it started feeling like a shake down.  Problems - special permits needed - requirements to travel to a different part of the city - I was waiting for the price tag - how much was this mistake going to cost me.  We didn't feel unsafe - it wasn't a dark alley after all - but it certainly didn't feel right.  I put up my defensive walls and started pushing back.  Asking questions, looking for holes in their stories, not taking their statements as trustworthy, etc... Remember, this is through broken English, with six people in my care, five of whom were having their very first experience in a developing country - at midnigth, not far from the train station in a city of 22 million people.  Every man on the scene was firm in their story, they could not take us to the hotel... I was firm in mine, I was not going to the location of their choosing.

91-11-47646464 that number, typed into a simple cellphone, will be etched into my brain for some time.  If you want to call the Hotel Krishna New Delhi that's the number.  I convinced one of the drivers to let me use his phone to call the hotel.  The number worked, and the front desked confirmed that we could not make it to the hotel.  Not by auto-rickshaw, not by taxi, not by foot - they were sorry for the inconvenience but due to blocked roads and restricted traffic, it wasn't possible, and we would have to find something else - maybe in the city center - but they had no way of helping us.  The drivers were right we needed to go to a different part of the city (not far away), and find something there.

We took off through the still crazy Delhi traffic in a mini parade of green and yellow three wheeled thrill rides, loaded with seven exhausted travelers and our mini-mountain of luggage.  A few minutes later we turned into a semi-dark alley... but it was lit by a huge blue sign declaring "Delhi Tourist Information Center."  Is wasn't any official center, but it was open, and there was an English speaking person willed to help us with a phone, a computer, and a smile.

He confirmed that we could not reach our hotel, and because so many hotels are in that area, it would be very hard to find a hotel.  After a few calls the gravity of our situation started to set in as we could not find a hotel which could hold the seven of us.  Finally there was one hotel with two suite rooms available for over $400 each!  $1600 for our two nights, in a city where would would not be permitted to travel freely (for reasons we yet did not understand, but certainly seemed ominous) did not seem like a good deal at all.
All the while our luggage is still piled into the three waiting tuk-tuks, which we were watching via security cameras.  The drivers asked if we could unload our bags into the building, because it would be safer... Our feeling of security was not soaring... but everyone seemed to have our best interest in mind, and while our guard was up, and the anxiety (and exhaustion) could be felt, there was no panic.  Well, there was a little bit of panic when the women went to use the bathroom, and promptly reported that they would hold it until a later time.  Their first experience with an Indian bathroom will undoubtedly be with them for the rest of their lives.

A new option was put on the table.  What about traveling to Agra, staying in a hotel there - see the Taj Maha - and then come back up directly to the Delhi airport for our Tuesday flight to Dibrugarh?  We talked through the details, checked in with everyone in the group, took a vote, and decided to go with a very unexpected plan B.  Two taxis, three hotel rooms, entrance to the Taj, and a solution for our very pressing problem were paid for in advance, in cash, in an act of desperate faith.  We bid our tuk-tuk drivers farewell, and waited for our rides to arrive.

20 minutes later two small sedan taxis were loaded up, but it was clear to the travel agent that while we could fit with all our gear, it would not be a comfortable 3+ hour drive to the city of Agra - another taxi was called.  At 1:30 am, some 30 hours after we had left Castleton, NY, we were on our way out of Delhi - still not sure why we were not welcome - and on to Agra.

Arriving at a hotel at 4:45am is confusing to just about everyone, but in short order we had beds, bathrooms with toilets, and it was good.  24 hours later, at 4:45am, Tuesday morning we were departing the hotel again to make the 4 hour drive to the Delhi airport, but those 24 hours are for another post...

WHAT WAS HAPPENING IN DELHI?  Blame our trip to Agra not on religious extremist, nor political activists - it was the Canadians.  Specifically one Canadian - Prime Minister Justine Trudeau.  He and his family had arrived the night before we did, and to ensure their safety during their visit, travel in certain areas was severely limited.  But it turned out that he helped us have a great adventure, and we got to see one of the 7 wonders of the world.   

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Three Years Later

Normally before I head out on a trip I like post the itinerary, share what's going on, and why.  It didn't happen this time.  As I write I'm half way through the adventure, and what an adventure it is.

Three years ago my family was able to visit a far off corner of the world; the town of Likabali, India.  On the western edge of Assam, in the far northeast corner of India.  Here Steward and Nyapu train pastors, and educate young children.  It was an amazing experience, and now I am back with Corban our youngest, and six people from Emmanuel Reformed Church. 

Here is the basic plan:
  • Fly from JFK in New York City to Delhi.
  • Spend 36 hours or so in Delhi before a flight to Dibrugarh
  • Travel by van and ferry to Likabali
  • Spend seven days there (which is now here).  While I run a three day pastor training workshop, the rest of the team will be engaging with children at the elementary school run by Nyapu.
  • After worshiping on the other side of the world at a church in Likabali, and visiting a new church in a rural village on Sunday, Monday we will begin our trek back to the USA.  
  • Three plus hours to the airport in Dibrugarh, a flight to Delhi, an overnight stay before our flight back to NYC on Tuesday - to return home by late Tuesday night - Lord willing.

We are a few days in, and what a great adventure for God we are having.  The smiles when the group returns from the Oxford Brook School are great.  The feedback from the pastors I'm working with is encouraging.  And oh the unexpected adventure we had getting here!

But that is for another post...

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Raising kids in crazy places...

One week in one foreign country to encourage two families - this was a primary focus of our trip to Niger.  Each family has four kids who range in age from tween/teen to infant/toddler, each serves in Niamey, Niger, each is sent by the Reformed Church in America.  They are bound by these commonalities even if there are differences in background, story and interests.

Eating out at the restaurant of the girl's choice
The tangible part of our encouragement took the form of abundant care packages which were well received and a joy to give.  But something else happened, time and again we were able to have life giving conversations; talking freely, sharing stories, and comparing "notes." One other encouragement that we brought along without really thinking about it was our very own 13 year old American boy.  Having someone new to play with, share being a kid with, stay connected with American culture with, this seemed like maybe the best thing we brought.  It also lead to talking about parenting as my kids are just a few years older than their’s.  

In one conversation with Jeremy and Susan, they brought up the questioning (sometime direct, sometimes a bit more subtle) about the safety and well being of their children.  Are they limiting their kid’s futures?  Are they sacrificing their kids for the ministry of God?  Wouldn't it be better to raise their kids in America?  These are legitimate questions, and sometimes in mission work the answer is and has been yes, but in this case the Beebouts feel the answer is a resounding no.  Because those questions must be answered in the context of “what do you want for your children?”

What do they want for their kids?  What do I want for my kids?  What do you want for your kids?

Hanging out after worship
Is the primary value maximizing their economic potential?  Or at least ensuring they can keep up with the Jone’s… Is the primary value minimizing risk?  Should parents to everything possible to keep their kids as safe as possible?  Or is it fitting in?  Being normal seems to drive many suburban and mainstream parents.

Well, maybe normal isn't best.  Maybe the spiritual is more important than the physical.  Maybe what appears to be risky, is actually safer for their souls.  I took my all American boy to Niger, a country filled with disease, defined by poverty, almost completely non-Christian, and far off the beaten path for vacation weeks - because I want him to be American plus.  I want my kids to have a bigger perspective, a spiritual framework, and an understanding that in risk there is reward.

The Beebout and the Johnson girls are growing up with parents who are giving them the world, and even more importantly, giving them eternity.  And this is at the heart of the matter.  Normal in the USA often looks like teens who are distant from adults, distant from their faith, discontent with what they have, and disconnected from the realities of the vast majority of people on this planet.  These kids are being raised in Niger, and they are anything but distant, discontent or disconnected.  But it isn't the place that is the most important, it is the parents.  It was a joy and inspiration to be with these families - who turned the tables and encouraged me.

Johnson girls helping in the market and the kitchen.

Who knows where they will land - but helping them land on their feet... (photos from the school's track and field day)

Friday, February 24, 2017

How do you help?

We arrived in Niger to encourage, to get educated, and to engage in any way we could.  There was no agenda given before we arrived, no todo list, and there were no expectations on our part.  But we wanted to help.  As I shared in my last post, we learned so much!  But we were able to help around the edges as well.  Helping looked like working on the EERN guesthouse that we called home.  This is a building which is still being finished.  David looked pretty dramatic installing screens on the second floor windows (not a simple proposition).

Tobiah improved the looks and function of a hand rail – nothing very dramatic, but an upgrade for everyone who uses the stairs over the coming years.  Or there was the laundry line installed by the washing machine.  Just a little something which needed to be done.  Some of our serving was also self serving.  With schedules, families, and other considerations it was easier if we took care of our own meals on multiple occasions.  We got creative with food we bought at the supermarket in town, and we always had more than enough. 

Sometimes helping sounds pretty mundane, until you move it to Niger.  For example, taking a church vehicle to a mechanic.   This meant I had and excuse to drive in Niamey.  Now I sorta like driving in developing countries.  Here there is all the normal crazy of driving with people, bikes, goats, wagons, vans, trucks, motos and most everything else on the road, but it is coupled with the worst roads I have ever seen in a city, or even a large town.  These roads were equivalent to rural roads in Bolivia which are only used by potato trucks.  But when we arrived we got to meet Eric.  An American in his mid-60s who married an Nigerien woman in PA, and then they came here and he step up a shop (as there are basically no trained mechanics in the city).  Oh, he also set up a hard core weight gym where he sells memberships.  Yes, he is a character, right down to his 300+ hp Ford Ranger with a NOS tank…

But helping also looked like being guests of honor.  Visiting a new and developing school which is sponsored by the EERN.  Sometimes taking an interest is helping.

While we did not change the world, it was great to help out just a little bit while we learned so much.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

I have never met a supreme court justice.

Within 48 hours of arriving in Niger, our little group of travelers is sitting down with one of the seven justices of this country’s highest court.  And he is a brother of mine.  Issaka Mousa grew up in a little rural village of 500 people, one of 10 children in a Muslim family, and now not only is he on the high court, he is a devout Christian who is on the highest board of the EERN denomination, the head of Prison Fellowship of Niger, leads work with the Scripture Union, and more.  He also has three children, ages 12, 9 and 8 – did I mention that he is younger than I am.
Issaka is in the light blue

Issaka, my brother in Christ, was not alone while he gave us a presentation about Niger in English (English which was self-taught after a start by a Peace Corp Volunteer 29 years ago).  We were meeting with five members of the leadership of the EERN.  This is the oldest denomination in Niger, and they are proud to point out, the first religious organization registered with the government when independence came in 1960.  (they have incorporation #2)   As I mentioned in my last brief post, this was the end of a day which felt like drinking from a fire hose – refreshing but impossible to take it all in.

Our day started learning from Tom Johnson.  Tom came to Niger 15 years ago with a focus on development.  As a missionary with the Reformed Church in America, he came to support the work of the EERN.  He met his future wife while learning the local language (Hausa) – she filled in for her sister who was his primary teacher.  Now Tom and Aichatou have four daughters, ages 12 to infant, and in the past few years they have moved from Maradi which is the center of EERN’s work where Tom was heavily involved in their Bible school, to Niamey, the capitol city.

Tom is a bit of a history buff, so our time began highlighting our lack of knowledge of the colonial activity in West Africa.  How the French and British jockeying for power, influence and resources shaped the current realities.  It was fascinating, but the start of daylong deluge of information.  But don’t get me wrong, we wanted the deluge.  Every bit of the day was interesting, and in the end, highly inspiring.  I would not have wanted the time from 5pm to 10:30 pm with the church leaders, without this initial primer from Tom. 

Not only did we learn political history from Tom, but also the spiritual as well.  This country is somewhere between 0.3 and 0.6% Christian.  From the late 1800’s until roughly 100 years later, there were only three Christian organizations working here – the Catholics, one Baptist group, and SIM (Sudan Interior Mission).  This started to change in the 1980’s and the doors were more fully opened in the 90’s.  This is something truly amazing – in a nation which is essentially completely Muslim – there are no restrictions on Christianity.  Currently (there have been many coups and 7 different constitutions since 1960) there is a secular government, freedom of assembly, and no anti-conversion laws.  But I digress…

Tom shared what he is doing now, and it is inspiring (and inspired).  He has taken the basic digital architecture for a hymn book app, and recreated it with help from the original developer as a Hausa hymn book.  Not only is the existing Hausa hymn book now in the app, he has added over 300 new songs which has gathered from worship leaders.  It is a dynamic resource for the church – and yes, even here in the country with the lowest standard of living on the planet – smartphones and tablets are common.  With over 10,000 downloads, this is being used – we saw a woman singing from her tablet on Sunday!

CADR - Guesthouse of EERN

I realize this post is way too long – but our day felt like three.  On this amazing Monday, we also were given a tour of the property where we are staying by Jeremy Beebout who has helped oversee its development.  A plot which once had one small building, now has three – office, guest house, medical clinic – and another under construction to be a school for nurses.  Then we got to talk with his wife Susan who is a medical doctor and runs the clinic here.  Hopefully I will be able to share more about this later.

Then we got to where I started this post.  Our amazing time with the church leaders who shared an exciting vision of hope here in Niger.  This ended with our extended roof top dinner where we enjoyed each other’s company and heard some of the stories of how they became Christians.  Every man in the room was raised in a Muslim family, and each has a unique story of coming to Christ.  

There is so much more to share – but I will never be able to capture it all….

Monday, February 20, 2017

My head hurts...

Have you ever learned so much your head hurt?  Well, today was one of those days.  In one day we learned what we don’t know about West Africa history, Niger past, present and future, the amazing life stories of people who have left the USA and now call Niger home, the life changing work these people are doing here, the history of Christianity in the country, the amazing things which have happened here since the riots and destruction, how what others meant for evil, God has used for good, and life changing stories of how God has transformed men from Muslim families into Christian church leaders.  How about spending over 5 hours learning from a man who came from a traditional village of 500, first learned English from a Peace Corp volunteer, was encouraged toward Christianity by his Imam, and is now one of seven judges on the highest court of Niger's Supreme Court (Congressinoal Court)! 

The day just ended with a 2+ hour dinner with four Americans from ERC and four Nigerien men (including the judge, and the president of the EERN denomination) which continued until 10:30 this evening.  I have experienced too much to record right now – hopefully tomorrow…  because right now my head hurts.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

It is available here too!

Most everywhere I have traveled I have experienced something amazing, and I found it here  in Niger as well.  There is so much that is not here in Niger.  It has the lowest standard of living of any country on the planet, I think I heard that it is the hottest country on the planet, almost no fruit is grown here, but on our first full day we were able to join with other Christians in worship.  In a country that is only 0.33% Christian, the beauty, mystery and unity of heartfelt worship of God through Christ is here.

Our team was able to visit three different worship services today – two completely, and one in part.  What a blessing!  The first was to a church plant which started six weeks ago (January 8).   It was simple and wonderful!  Most of the service was in the Hausa language, with some songs in French (the common language of Niger), and a few in English (they might have been thrown in because of one row of white skinned folk).  Christine was near to tears as she took in the service.  Without understanding a word, it still spoke to the soul.  Beautiful voices, raised in song so that all around could hear what was happening - litterally.

A church that meets in a building like this is a natural witness to neighbors.  While there is a wall surrounding the property for security purposes (and every property in the city for that matter), there were no walls in the building where we sang (and yes, we could sing from the songbooks even though we could recognize nothing but the name of Jesus (Yesu)).  Why do you need walls when winter days are still over 80 degrees, and who would want walls in the summer when the mercury shoots well past 100 every day? With over 50 Nigeriens (including the only Christian member of Parliament - who was a joy to talk with) we worshiped the Lord.  But that was only the start.

After saying our farewells, we were off to the main location for this denomination.  

We entered a construction zone.  While the first church building was recently constructed, the main church is building something brand-new.  This was a decision forced upon them this time of year two years ago.  The riots of Paris after a satirical paper enflamed passions spread to Niger as well.  While Christians were not physically attacked, their buildings were – and the building which was once here was destroyed by fire.  So now this church can build bigger, create more space for the future, and the 500 seat auditorium they are building will be wonderful.  But again, the beauty is not the building, but the people.  Filling a temporary structure out back, we entered to hear the end of the sermon, and enjoy a final anthem from the choir. The entire service was in French and Hausa, and as it ended up, we experienced the final 20 minutes of a three hour service.  A service filled with young and old, and more importantly filled with joy and love.  

After lunch at a restaurant with the pastor from the first church, and a denominational leader, we returned to our guest house to prep dinner and rest a bit before heading back out to the final service of the day. 

We were able to engage more fully in this service – because we knew the language.  While to many it would feel like a church, it really isn’t.  Most everyone there is part of a church, but those churches do not worship in their heart language.  This is a time for worship and teaching in English for people doing ministry in Niger, NGO staff, and others.  Today the worship was led by a worship team led by a man from Ohio, and the sermon was preached by a pastor from upstate New York.  It was refreshing to sing with this gathering of about 120 people, and an honor to encourage them with eternal truths. 

Then at the guest house we enjoyed a dinner with the Johnsons (it is a lot of fun to get to know the Johnson girls).

There is so much more to share about Niger – but just know, that even in the country where only 1 out over every 300 people knows Jesus, there is glorifying worship happening!