All right. I realized that my last post was quite heavy, so this time, I wanted to give you a glimpse of some of the lighter lessons of mission life. So, these are some of the lessons that my lovely boys have taught me in just the past few weeks.

  1. If you let them use scissors, they will cut their hair.  We now have one boy running around looking as though his head got stuck in a lawn mower because he took my Crayola safety scissors and cut his own hair. The other boys now laugh and say that rats ate his hair in his sleep. (This would be more funny if they did not actually all know what that felt like).
  2. When all else fails, glue their homework into their notebooks. Because then, they have to lose the whole book in order to lose their homework. Now, some of them will do it, but the number will dramatically decrease. Yes, the other teachers think I am crazy, but my students all finished their homework this week. Results are worth the crazy points.
  3. Never, ever, accept something to blow your nose in without first checking that there is not a ‘surprise’ inside. And, when you are dealing with Ephrem, it is better not to accept anything at all. That boy has a gift for finding dead animals.
  4. When you teach kids about new foods, be very careful. I figured that jello was harmless. We feed it to kids and sick people in America, so it should be innocent. Well, apparently the word ‘jello’ in Amharic means something very, very, very different. It has now become a dirty joke among the boys that we have all eaten ‘jello.’ Sigh. Teaching backfire.
  5. When they say they will bite you, they are not kidding. Enough said.
  6. You will gain major respect for being able to fake crack your nose. I gained so much that Kamil decided I was worthy to eat dinner with him the other night! Since he is usually antisocial, this was a major win!
  7. There are six different ways to complete a simple maze puzzle, depending on how you understood the directions. And, once you have finished, you can just choose another random start and finish point, and the fun continues. For three hours. I was so tired of mazes.
  8. Getting to choose your own library book is a privilege right up there with getting to eat the food of your choice. I mean, seriously, take a look at how many choices you have in a day. The boys here eat from a circular menu, the same things, every week, in the same quantities. But this week, when we started allowing some of the older ones to read in the library and choose their own books, it was as if we had told them to spend $500 at a sports store. They are so excited to see all of the choices that most of them don’t have any time left to actually read!

Please keep us all in your prayers. We have added ten new boys in the last two weeks, and we are very happy, but it always creates new challenges and chaos in our busy home.

Standing at the Gate

The reality of life is, not every moment is happy. Sometimes, life is painful. Here in Bosco Children, we are certainly not exempt from struggles and challenges.

This week, we celebrated the feast of Timket (the Baptism of the Lord). It is one of the largest celebrations of the year in the country. As we sometimes do on feast days, we allowed the boys to be free for the day. We give them money for transportation, and they go and celebrate with the rest of the country. Then, we wait for them at the gate in the evening.

Unfortunately, sometimes our boys do not come back on time. When they are given the freedom to go and do as they like, they can be caught up in the excitement of the day. On holidays here, there is always plenty of food, and even more alcohol available. For boys who are used to drinking, this opens the gateway to things from their street life, and once they start drinking, they often fall back into their previous habits. Sadly, this week, ten boys did not come back.

We waited for them until midnight, praying that they would come home safely. The rule of this house is, if a boy stays out overnight without permission, he is immediately sent out of the project. Thankfully, five of the boys stumbled in the gate around 10 p.m., four hours late, obviously under the influence of multiple substances. Physically they were safe. The effects and aftereffects have come and gone. Unfortunately, now they are struggling with their own shame and guilt over breaking the rules and going back to habits which they had tried so hard to overcome. And it is in this weakness that I realize again what a blessing it is when someone forgives you and looks past your mistakes and is willing to start again with you, despite their disappointment. Our boys are not used to such a grace; after all, the outside world has never offered it to them. But how can I offer them less, when God has done this much for me?

Unfortunately, the other five boys did not return until the following morning. I can hardly stand to think back. They stood outside the gate in the morning, asking to be let in. They waited the whole day, asking everyone who entered to plead their case. Then, they stayed outside the gate all night, still hoping to be forgiven and let back in. The next day, they waited again, but now they had begun to realize how serious the situation is. Previously, some of them thought this was a joke, or a lesson to scare them into behaving. The were now understanding that most likely they will not be welcomed back. Later that day it was made official. They will be given their things and enough money for transportation back to their families. They will not be allowed to come back.

My heart breaks for them. As I stand inside the gate and hear them crying and think of them once again sleeping huddled on the sidewalk, I can hear my heart crying. I wonder why…why did they choose to stay out, knowing the rule? What temporary fun was worth this consequence? Why would they risk everything that they had gained, and everything they had coming to them – education, food, sponsorship, work, a home – just to drink and enjoy for a few hours? These were my boys. I know what makes them laugh, what they like to play, what their favorite foods are, what subjects they struggle with, what talents they have. I have taught them, played with them, nursed them, bandaged them, encouraged them, and loved them.  With all my heart, I want to run outside the gate, embrace them, and bring them back inside. I cannot. All I can do is pray for them and surrender them into God’s hands.

How many jokes do we make about the gate of heaven? I have heard so many. But the fact is, I now have some understanding of how God feels when we turn from Him. I think of all the work that we have done for these boys, how many chances and opportunities we have provided them to allow them to change their lives. How much love and effort has God lavished on me? A few days ago I was joking with these boys at the dinner table; today I will watch them walk away for the last time, and I pray I will not meet them on the streets again. And now I understand how God grieves when we throw away everything He wants for us for something which will not matter in the end, which will not last, and which will ultimately not bring us joy. I use the pain of this moment as an opportunity to thank God for the love, the forgiveness, the opportunities and blessings that He has given so abundantly to me.

So, today I grieve. I cry for my boys, who were given freedom and chose this end. Today, I stand at the gate and witness that within our freedom, we must also bear the consequences of our choices. Today, standing at the gate is one of the most difficult things I have done.

(Note: I am not including any names in this for privacy. I wrote this some time before and am only now publishing it here, because I feel it is something important to bear witness to. As you read this, please offer up a prayer for all my boys here, and for all those children who are on their own, and for all those whose choices in this moment may be affecting their future.)

We Are Enough

DSCN4947.JPGMerry Christmas from Bosco Children! I am hoping and praying that this update finds each of you well and rejoicing during this beautiful time of year.

Over the past weeks, I have been blessed in so many unexpected ways by those in my life.  I know that many of you have been praying for me recently, and this outpouring of spiritual communion and support has overwhelmed me.

So often these days, I find myself becoming frustrated by all that I want to do and accomplish and the fact that, some days, I cannot do even simple things.  I cannot plan too far in advance, because I have to take stock every few hours to see how I am doing.  When I wake up, I don’t know how I will feel that day.

I live here with 70 very active teenage boys who demand a great deal of attention and energy.  We are short staffed, and when I am absent, I know that it creates more work for my community, who are already stretched to their capacity. There are days and moments that I struggle with fear. What will happen in the future? Will I be able to continue the work I love? Why is my plan not working out? I want to be present for my boys, why can I not even do this simple thing? I don’t want to be a burden to my community, so how can I possibly contribute right now?

This, it turns out, is a very American way of thinking, where my value is based on what I can give and do.  But, if I turn my thinking around and consider those in my life right now, they are not precious because they can do things or give me things. I care for them without expectation, because God has placed them in my life, and that is reason enough. Why can I not see myself for others in the same light?

I still sit with my boys, still color with them in the evenings and answer their homework questions, joke with them as they eat their meals, and cheer for them as they play during the break times. I still meet them when the come home from school, and I still wish them sweet dreams as they go to bed.  Once I arrived back in the compound, I saw how missed I had been. Seventy times I have answered the question that yes, I am recovering and no, I am not leaving.  I have been told innumerable times that they have prayed for God to make me well. And no one has made me feel like a burden; they are happy to assist and to meet me where I am.  My value has not decreased in their eyes at all.

This week, as we celebrated the birthdays of the boys and I congratulated each of them, assuring them that they are special and loved, I had a moment where I saw that this is the same way that God views me. God does not need me. He is quite capable of taking care of these boys without my assistance.  But, my being here, that is enough for Him.  My presence and the time that I spend with Him in mass, in prayer, in meditation, is enough, not because I bring or do anything that He needs, but because HE IS, and I AM.

Sometimes, it is hard to realize that we are enough. It is easy to see our flaws, our weaknesses, our mistakes, our failings. We can count them, and we carry them around with us, allowing them to drag us down and drain us of the strength that we need. So often I struggle with this drive to do more and this acknowledgement only of my faults. I convince myself that I am worthless, that because I cannot do things as I used to, I have lost my value. This is a great lie. My precious boys here believe this lie about themselves, and I have spent hours sometimes arguing with them about their worth to me. Now, as I struggle with this same self-doubt, I hear my Lord whispering back to me all of the words that I have said to these boys.

“I love you, even knowing your past, even seeing your shortcomings, even now in your weakness. I made you wonderful, and that is why I love you. Do whatever you are able to do with great love, for this is the best sacrifice you can give to Me. I can work through your weaknesses, and I will continue to work in you and through you.  Trust. Be still and trust me.”

It is hard for me to be still.  But, maybe, this is the lesson I need to learn now. In this house, there is always something going on. There is always one more thing to do, one more task to finish, one more lesson to plan, one more question to answer, one more boy to counsel, one more thing to organize…and maybe, I have relied too much on myself and my abilities. Now, in my weakness, I am forced to be still and to trust that God can still work through even the smallest of my actions.

So, as I celebrate how precious each of these boys is, I am also learning to celebrate how precious I am to the Lord. We are preparing to receive Him, but He is not asking us for anything more than what we are. We are enough.

Cinderella’s Story


How often have we all heard the story of Cinderella?  Think about it.  It’s probably one of the most familiar stories that you know.  You’ve seen the movie.  You know the story.  When you hear the name, you get visions of blue ball gowns and glass slippers and singing mice in your mind.

Most of Cinderella’s story is made up of fairy godmothers intervening, incredible balls and dreams coming true.  However, in the beginning of her story, for the first five minutes of the film, you hear about her mother dying, her father remarrying, and her new, horrible stepmother.  This tragedy takes place in a matter of seconds and is immediately replaced with all of the complications of going to a ball and having the perfect dress.

Did you ever stop to think how many other ways Cinderella’s story could have turned out?  I will be honest, I never did. At least, I didn’t until earlier this week.

Earlier this week, one small boy from our project told another that when he left for school the next morning, he was going to run away and not return.  Thankfully, the second boy came and told us that this was going to happen, giving us a chance to intervene.  We kept the boy home from school the next day, so as not to give him the opportunity to leave until we could talk to him in depth.  The next day, instead of going to school with the others, he stayed with me.  We did simple math assignments, logic worksheets, and art projects for the whole day, and as we worked, I gradually got him to talk about why he wanted to leave.

This boy is so small, only 12 years old. He left his home four years ago, because his mother died and his father remarried a woman who spent most of her time abusing him. He spent years on the streets, alone, doing menial jobs and trying to survive, until he finally joined our project.  He now attends school in the fourth grade, because he is not old enough or big enough to train in a  technical field. He finds school really difficult, and since he cannot go home and continue his school later, he thinks it might be better to go back to the streets and just work.  He believes that is all that he will ever be good at, that there is no hope for him to do anything more.

I spent eight hours with this boy, working with him, talking with him, encouraging him.  Finally, by the end of the day, I managed to get him to promise me that when he went to school the next day, he would come back to me.  I waited for him at the gate the next day, hugging him and telling him how happy I am that he is here as soon as he arrived.  And that evening, I had him promise me again that he would come back the next day.  Now, by the end of the week, it has become the routine.  He comes to me when he arrives from school, so that I can hug him, call him by his nickname, and ask how his day was.  And in the evenings, on his way to bed, he comes to say goodnight and promise me that he will come home the next day.

I cannot promise this boy that everything will work out.  as much as I want to wrap him in my arms and take care of him forever, to let him be a 12 year old boy and have his biggest worries be his homework and trying to win in soccer, I cannot guarantee him this future.  But I realized what a battle that we are fighting here in this project.  We are fighting against the shame that these boys feel.  They have never been forgiven, never been loved unconditionally, so they have no idea how to put their past behind them and believe that they are worth more.  Now, when I see this boy smile because he sees me waiting for him, I understand how important it is to know that someone is waiting for you, that someone notices when you are not okay or missing.  It is essential to know that someone knows your mistakes, your imperfections and your struggles, and still loves you and wants you in spite of it all.

I have this assurance in Christ.  And I am doubly blessed because I have this assurance from my family; I know that not everyone has this extra blessing.  It does no good to tell these boys that they are important.  They don’t believe it.  I have to show them.  I have to show them through my actions that I notice when they are here, that when they are missing I am sad, that I want to spend time with them and to be with them.  Because until they realize that someone thinks of them as worth something, they are unable to think of themselves as worth anything.

WP_20151117_11_58_40_ProIn Cinderella’s story, things never got so bad that she actually left home. Then, later, a fairy godmother came and solved all of her problems for her.  So many of my boys here have a story that begins similarly to Cinderella’s, but then, somewhere in that first chapter, their stories went a very different way.  For my boys, there is no fairy godmother who will appear and magically make them comfortable and cared for.  They have to learn to be strong enough to change their own stories.  But, until they believe that they are worth it, their inclination is to give up.

They are worth it. They are worth every good thing on this earth.  They deserve to be happy, to be loved, to be free. I will wait by the gate every day to take them in my arms if that is what it takes for them to know their worth.  And, someday, I pray that they will realize just how beautiful and precious they are.

Never Enough


We are never enough.  Nothing we do is ever enough.  And it does not matter how much we give, we will not be able to satisfy every need.

This is the realization that I have been struggling with this past month.  I live with 65 teenage boys from very broken, destitute, and desperate situations.  I spend nearly every waking moment with them, and when I am not with them, I am usually planning, preparing, or organizing things for them.  There are numerous nights where I have less than 3 hours of sleep, only to wake up for mass and begin again.

Think of all the things that we learn while we are at home. We learn not only things like how to play with others, study well, follow a schedule, etc., but we also learn so many small, informal things like how to wash our clothes, how to give and receive hugs, how to ask for something, how to use our imaginations and draw a picture. We have people to ask any question that comes to our mind, and we know that they will answer us as honestly as they can. When we are at home, we have people who let us know through their words and actions that we are valuable, special, and cared for. This security of knowing that we are loved and accepted allows us to grow up healthy and able to give to others.

My boys here, many of them, have never experienced this. They do not think that they are valuable. They tell me quite frankly that they are bad, or stupid, or hopeless. They flinch when I raise my hand near them, afraid of a beating, when all I want to do is clasp their shoulder, hug them, or pat them on the back. These reactions are reducing around me now, but in the beginning, it was very obvious that these boys have little value of self worth.

Now, because I spend every moment, every dollar I have, everything that I own for their benefit, they are beginning to realize that they are cared for. They do not flinch so much now when I hug them, and some of them return the embrace or even initiate it. (Some of them still complain loudly, pretending that they are sick, but that is because they are teenage boys and they have to maintain their cool factor.) It is now expected that I will be available to answer any questions they might have, to give them worksheets in the library, to teach them how to play cards and pick-up sticks in their break times, to let them use my phone to call their families in the evening.

I am now the one who answers the questions that they come up with. “Why don’t head hair and leg hair have different names?” “When will my chest hair grow?” “Why don’t you die when you go west from California? After all, on the map, there is nothing there!” “How do you learn how to do the splits?” “Don’t all sharks eat people?” “How do you curl your tongue up?” “How can I make that girl I like talk to me?” And many, many more.

I am the one who they come to when they are disappointed. When they come home from their free day outside the compound on Sunday, they come running to greet me and tell me that they missed me, even though it has only been 7 hours since they saw me. If I am not present during the sport time, or in the library in the evening, it is a big deal. Surely I must have died, because they know that I am always there! And I know that this consistency, this constant reassurance that they are doing well, that I notice when they learn to read a new word, or do well on an assignment, or play football exceptionally well, or remember what they told me one week before, allows them to begin to understand just how precious they are.

But it is never enough. For every hour that I spend in the library with them in the evenings, by the end of the time, when I send them to bed, there are still 15 more boys who are disappointed because I didn’t have time to work with them individually that day. For every break time that I play basketball with one group of boys, the ones who played volleyball are sad because there wasn’t enough time for me to play with them. There is never enough time to answer every question, reassure every fear, encourage every struggling boy. And there are days when I have just sat and cried in the evening from my own exhaustion and the fact that still, I am not enough.

I pray, every day, all day, that these boys will come to know the God who created them, who died for them, and who loves them more than I ever can. He is enough, if we seek Him. But I also know that one of the ways that these boys are going to meet Him, to understand this kind of love, is through my perseverance and presence. This means that I must persist. I have to run the race. I have to teach all day, spend all night in the hospital holding a boy’s hand, and wake up the next morning, ready and happy to be with them and help them again. It is the greatest privilege I have ever had, and the hardest work that I have ever done. And so, I pray for them, and for the religious who I am working with, that we can lead these boys to the One who is enough, so that they can finally have the rest and peace that they were so desperately seeking.

My Sunburn Has Smile Wrinkles

Greetings from Ethiopia! DSCN4240For those of you who haven’t heard, I have returned to Addis Ababa for a third year. I am no longer teaching in the school, however. I am still working with the Salesians, but in another project. The goal of this project is working with boys who have been living either on the streets or in prison. So, I now live in a compound with 57 teenage boys who are learning and growing and preparing to return to their families or to society. To say they are a tough crowd would be an understatement, and to say that I love them does not express how very dear they are to me. I am very excited to be beginning this new area of ministry work.

As you may know from some of my other posts, Ethiopia is a country that marches to the beat of its own drum. They like to be individual in everything, including their calendar. This means that shortly after I arrived back here, we celebrated Ethiopia New Year, so happy 2008! And what a celebration we had.

For the new year, we took all of our boys to the countryside for three days, to the Salesian compound in Zway, about a three hour bus ride from Addis Ababa. We all crowded onto a bus, and the boys sang and shouted for the entire three hour ride. It is very exciting to go for holiday here, and for some of these boys, this was their first time to travel merely for pleasure.

During our three days in Zway, experiencing a holiday from perspective of these precious boys, I gained a profound gratitude for my childhood, for the innocence and fun that I was privileged to have. Where we stayed, there were swing sets, and for many of these boys, they had never been on a swing before. Watching and teaching sixteen year old boys how to pump their legs on the swing, how to try to reach the DSCN4215leaves of the trees with their feet, or jump from the highest point, touched me in so many ways. They were so excited with those swings that they spent nearly every free minute on something that so many American children have in their backyards…a once in a lifetime experience for them.

One day, we took all of the boys swimming in the lake. Again, something that so many of us from the US are accustomed to was such a moment of joy, and again, for some of the boys, a completely new experience. Arriving at the lake, all of the boys stripped right down to their underwear and charged into the reddish colored water. I watched one frightened boy who had never swam before tie empty soap bottles to his waist as a flotation device, while all of the others took a few moments to become accustomed to the water, braving one or two inches at a time. As I went into the water with them, I was immediately surrounded by slippery, brown bodies trying to dunk me, swimming through the murky water trying to catch me off guard, tugging me this way and that as they clamored for my attention. We raced and wrestled, laughed and splashed for nearly four hours. (I am a little proud to admit that I held my own with them in races, winning quite a few. This is new for me, because I can never win a running, football, or any other athletic event, so it was nice to earn some cred from them for my abilities.)

I watched as, for dinner one evening, the priests taught the boys how to slaughter a sheep, tie it upside down from a tree, skin it, and prepare it. The boys participated in the process of using an axe to chop it up, cooking it in a large, iron skillet the size of a toboggan. Of course, with boys, everything is an adventure, so it soon became a contest of who could stand closest to the fire and not get hit with the splattering fat from their dinner. (I had to save a couple of boys and reprimand one particularly aggressive chef.) This was touching, though, because generally, this process of killing and preparing the sheep is something that an Ethiopian father teaches his son, and this whole process is something very culturally celebrated for nearly every feast day. It is also something that these boys most likely have not had the pleasure of being involved in for some time, and to watch the eagerness with which they learned and helped was to be able to see them gain a piece of normalcy. Of course, with nearly 65 boys, the sheep did not last long. They do like to eat!

As we all rode back to Addis, tired and happy, I watched the countryside go by outside and boys hassle each other inside. And I realized how very normal this feels for me, meaning that I don’t feel like an outsider. When I arrived here in Bosco Children nearly a month ago, boys who remembered me from the previous year came running and shouting “Eri! Eri!” and then proceeded to tell me that they had thought I forgot my promise to come back, how glad they are to see me, and how fat I have become. Every day I am butt of jokes and pranks, the teacher trying desperately to explain the difference between ‘steady’ and ‘study’ in a language that I am not fluent in, the loser of table tennis and the winner of table football, the mother who comes and hugs them when I see they are discouraged, the sister who they come up and hold hands with as they ask me questions and tell me what they are thinking about. I had a profound sense of coming home. I am home, because I am exactly where God wants me to be right now, doing what he has entrusted to me with the best of my ability and immeasurable grace from him. These beautiful, precious boys have been rejected and cast off by society and sometimes by their own families; and in God’s eyes they are priceless, but they don’t believe it. So, this is what my Lord has asked of me, to love them unconditionally, the same way that He loves me, DSCN4230so they can learn what love is. Society says that they are the least, and Christ says that what we do for the least we do for Him. As I try to love them as He does, regardless of their past and acknowledging of their gifts, I see His love reflected right back to me in their sweaty hugs and steady acceptance. And I know, as I sit here, nursing a sunburn that has smile wrinkles, I am home.

Each and Every


I have put off writing this post, because it is difficult to describe in words exactly how I feel. At the moment, I am in my house, listening to the hail outside and wondering how I am going to get to work without looking like a drowned rat. The quiet, persistent sound reflects my pensive mood quite nicely, as this will be my last post of the year.

What do shall I say? How can I summarize a year of laughter, tears, joys, challenges, and growth in a few measly paragraphs? Is that even possible? There are so many things that I could say here, but only a few which are absolutely necessary.

This year has been both amazing as well as challenging. I have done things which, two years ago, I could never have imagined myself doing. I have seen so many things and experienced so much. There have been moments where I was sure I could not continue, and times when I was sure that I could do this forever. And both were good. Through both, God showed me His infinite mercy and power, drawing me ever closer to His heart.

And very often, the way that the Lord came to me was through others. Every person I have met here, every life that I have encountered, has meant so much to me. The people here are so willing to allow me into their lives, and some of them accept me just as I am, no expectations, no requests, just a sharing.

I am so happy and blessed to be able to formally say that I will be returning to Ethiopia in September as a Salesian Lay Missioner for another year. I will be changing my work and my location, but I am excited that I have the opportunity to come back. For many of the people I have worked with, I will see them again. For some, though, this is the last time.

That is the thing about goodbyes. We never know when it is the last time we will see someone. We hope we will; we pray for it. But really, we cannot know. So, for my friends and loved ones here, I am taking this chance. I know some of you will never see this. I’ll write it anyhow. I am honored and happy to know you. You have blessed me in more ways than I can express. You have opened your hearts to me, supported me, encouraged me, taught me, laughed with me (and at me), and loved me. I can never deserve it. I can never repay you. All I can say is thank you. I will carry you with me forever, and you will be in my thoughts and prayers always.

The video below consists of some photos from this year. They are not artistic shots, but every photo is someone who has touched me some way. I know each of them, and they are only a few of the hundreds of people whom I have had the privilege of working with.