Saturday, July 15, 2017

Life in Algiers: The pastor in a church without a pastor


Worship at Algiers UMC
When we were bidding on Algeria nearly 4 years ago, I knew nothing of the history of Methodism in the country. I didn’t know about the historical link between Methodist mission stations in Algeria and DR Congo; I didn’t know about Hugh and Fritzi Johnson, and I definitely didn’t know there was a United Methodist congregation in Algiers. I was about to experience a steep learning curve.

By the time we arrived in Algiers, I’d done enough research to know that somewhere in the vast city there was a Methodist community, but I didn’t know where they worshipped, if they were in a neighborhood I was allowed to go to, or even what language they worshipped in. They didn’t have a website (preferring to fly below the radar), so I started asking around. What I discovered seemed too amazing to be true: not only did they worship primarily in a language I spoke (French), our embassy-assigned apartment was barely two blocks away from them!

We showed up at church the next Friday (in this part of the word, churches meet on Fridays), and I introduced myself to the lay leader. “Alleluia!” she proclaimed. It turned out that the congregation had been without an ordained pastor for quite some time and praying intensely for one. Their previous missionary pastor had left the country due to health problems, and they had been lay-led since then. Long story shortened, after a flurry of emails, the bishop of the UMC’s France-Swiss-North Africa episcopal area, Patrick Streiff, invited me to serve as the congregation’s new pastor. 

Nothing is simple when you are married to a diplomat, though. Legally, I was under Chief of Mission authority, and so had to get the ambassador’s blessing before doing any public speaking or taking a leadership role in any local organization—even as a volunteer (it is forbidden for spouses of diplomats to work on the local economy in Algiers). She gave her nod provided that the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave their nod. Then came the deafening silence. Finally, the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs gave their nod of approval, and we announced publicly my appointment just in time for a wonderful Easter celebration.

A few months later, though, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came back with a bureaucratic “No.” I couldn’t be a religious leader in Algeria because I was here on a diplomatic visa—not a religious worker’s visa.  Ugh. Now what?  I sought guidance from the embassy and was told that although I wasn’t allowed to be the pastor of my congregation, there were no prohibitions against being an active member. So, that’s how I became a highly active member of a congregation without a pastor which is led by its active members. Let those with ears hear what I’m saying.     

I'm assuming you now can guess why, despite the Algiers UMC being a major part of my life the past few years, I haven’t shared much about it online.  There is so much I have wanted to tell you, though. It is a truly beautiful congregation—multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-generational.  We’ve been through much during our journey together, and I’m so lucky to have had this opportunity.  One of these days I’ll tell you more about it.  

Photo with some of my beloved congregants
(I had the honor of being the commencement speaker for the Uganda Student Association this year)
Hanging out with Hugh Johnson at the Swiss-France Annual Conference UMC
Worship at Algiers UMC

Potluck meals at Algiers UMC

Congregants pulling an all-nighter at our place to cook up a feast for Easter

Worship at Algiers UMC 
(We have a number of Algerian members, 
but most do not wish their faith to be publicly known)  


Receiving on behalf of Algiers UMC the grand prize in 2016 from Connexio
for the outreach ministry of the year in the France-Swiss-North Africa conference.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Life in Algiers: Looking Back and Moving On

Easter Sunday in the DCM's garden
It is hard to believe that we are approaching the end of our 3-year posting in Algiers, Algeria. Next stop: a 2-year teaching gig for hubby at the Foreign Service Institute in the DC area.  This will be our first PCS state-side. Foreign Service folks know what this means: Transition mode has begun.  

In a desperate attempt to avoid overweight shipping fees, we have made a mountain in the guest room full of stuff that we’re leaving behind. Even the Christmas tree is going overboard. I’ve been baking up a storm and showing no restraint on using everything left in our pantry and spice rack. We are reviewing our check-lists so we don’t miss key deadlines (permission to sell car, paperwork to take our dog with us, etc.).  At the same time, it is starting to sink in just how much we’ll miss our life here.  When the final day comes, tears will be shed.

A couple years ago, I didn’t expect I’d be able to say that. Our first year in Algiers was rough—really rough.  All three of us were demoralized. Ten months in, it got to the point that we started talking curtailment. Other colleagues had already done so. Ultimately, what stopped us was the promise I had made to the Methodist congregation (and my bishop) here and my theostitious belief that God had placed us here for a task we had not yet completed. (that’s another story in itself)  

When hubby mentioned the ‘c’ word to front office, the response was “You haven’t taken a vacation since you arrived. Why don’t you take a long one and hopefully reconsider?” Although we’d already decided to stay, we jumped at the opportunity for a getaway and booked ourselves on the first cheap cruise we could find on vacation2go.com and paired it with a church conference in Versailles (Did you know that Paris Disney tickets are a fraction of the cost for DisneyWorld?!). 

Then, things started to turn around. After the summer turn-over, the embassy became family-friendly. E got off the waitlist for a new preschool. We finally found an evening babysitter. We were moved into a new apartment building with great neighbors, so we now do things like help each other with grocery shopping, carpool, and keep an eye on each other’s kids. I got over my fear of driving in Algiers and learned my way around town. I joined an amazing gym and started making new friends.  Our choir started doing truly meaningful performances. The Algerian government began renovating its public parks and installing playground equipment. We found affordable dance and gymnastics studios for E. I stopped fearing getting PNGed and started leaning into my ministry at the church and outing myself as a pastor--even taking on a de facto chaplain role at the embassy (again, another story). We started taking more trips and discovering more of the beauty and history of the region. And that’s just a partial list. 


I’ve become so spoiled by our life here. Sure, living in a glass cage still gets annoying sometimes. (example: I had to Skype into a Methodist women’s retreat this week because it was being held in region off-limits to us)  But, in all honestly, I’ve been living the dream. From our balcony I can see the Atlas mountains in the distance.  Nora regularly knocks on our door with freshly-baked bread or hot borek as a gesture of friendship. Mahdia comes and cooks us up a pot or two of Algerian cuisine made with the fresh produce I pick up from the road side stand I stop at on the way home from preschool. When we travel, the vet comes to pick up our dog (who adores her) and looks after him for a token fee. I get to hang out with interesting people from all over the world. When we tell our daughter we are going to the ambassador’s house, she asks which one: the one with the playground or the one where we sing?  Not only that, she is getting free coaching from one of the best gymnasts in the country.  I get the honor and fun of serving a multinational multilingual congregation and getting to experiment with preaching and worship styles in ways most clergy can never dare try at their appointments. In short, I’m really going to miss this place.  

But here's the thing I've realized:  What I've loved most about our last year here is the 'normalcy' of it all.  I finally got what so many of my non-nomadic friends take for granted: a community of folks who look after each other. I got my own sit-com life--the kind where the neighbor kid walks through our front door without knocking.  I got to serve a congregation where the treasurer insists she doesn't want to be the lay leader (but, de facto, she clearly is), and where the hospitality committee serves tea and sweets after every service. 

Will we be able to build such a village at our next address? Only time will tell.   

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Real Shame of #TrumpCantRead



image source: www.sosaschool.com
Unless you’ve managed to live off-the-grid this season, you’re probably aware of the hashtag #TrumpCantRead and the evidence various commentators (including the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal) have presented to suggest that Donald Trump has difficulty reading and thus avoids doing so.  I suspect these commentators are onto something, yet this hypothesis has actually made me feel a bit more sympathy for him.*  While I feel strongly about calling out people for destructive behavior, shaming someone for something they can’t control—that crosses the line.  

You see, lately I’ve been working on learning more about the psychology of shame.  After seeing BrenĂ© Brown’s TedTalk “Listening to Shame,”  I bought one of her audio books that delves deeper into the subject. Shame is a powerful emotion that drives so many destructive behaviors (chauvinism, perfectionism, bullying, etc.).  Like the fight-flight-freeze response, humans respond to shame by either puffing up, shrinking, or appeasing. Shame often manifests in violent ways: from suicide to cruelty to others.  As psychologist Mary C Lamia points out, “Narcissistic personalities often have the emotion of shame at their core.” 

Let’s imagine for a moment that Trump really does have trouble reading.  Perhaps it is dyslexia; perhaps it has something to do with his attention span or countless other issues that ideally would have been identified in childhood. According to a Frontline documentary I saw, his father was a man who praised toughness and mocked weakness. Perhaps little Trump was deeply ashamed by his struggles in school and developed coping mechanisms to mask his struggles and deflect these feelings. Perhaps his coping response was to puff up—to lash out at others.  Jessi Sholl writes thatTo compensate [for our shame], we scramble to cover up our perceived flaws by engaging in a long list of broken behaviors, including blaming and shaming others, perfectionism, lying, and hiding out.”   

Hmm… sound familiar?
   
Here’s the thing about shame:  When someone’s toxic behaviors are in response to their shame, trying to shame them into changing only makes them more ashamed—and thus even less likely to change. (this especially applies when trying to intervene with loved one who has an addiction problem)

Here’s the other thing: Shame is highly contagious. While the intention of the #trumpcantread conversation may be to suggest that Trump isn’t well educated on key issues, all the other people out there with reading difficulties get the message loud and clear that their struggles are shameful and their adaptations (getting news from t.v. instead of newspapers or enjoying movies over novels or having someone type their Tweets for them, for example) merit ridicule.

And that, is a real shame.



Taylor

P.S. I recently met a pastor who shared how, despite his severe dyslexia and previous beliefs that college wasn't for him and his only career options were manual labor jobs, he courageously went back to school and had just completed seminary.  Bravo. 


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*That is, in the same way I feel more sympathy for a school bully after hearing about her horrid home life.    



Thursday, February 02, 2017

Stress, Superpowers and Sanctification

image source: www.academia.dk

My stress levels have been toxically high lately, and I suspect you can guess why.  Part of this is because of current events and the context I’m living in, and part is because I’m what Glennon Doyle Melton calls a canary. 

My family tree is full of canaries spanning at least five generations.* Canaries are the people who feel, fear and ponder more intensely than the average person. Like the canaries that were used in coal mines, we are the first ones to to show signs of illness in a poisonous environment. Some may label this as a genetic mental defect, but I’ve come to embrace it as our superpower. 

As with all superpowers, we must learn to control it—to wield it for good—to not let the power drive us insane. This takes training and dedication. Just as great tales of heroes involve a period of getting their minds in an advanced state of wisdom (Luke Skywalker with Yoda, Jesus Christ with the Tempter, Paul Atreides with the Fremen, etc.**), we canaries need to strive for all out sanctification to not only survive but to lead our people out of this mess.         

[“Wait a sec.” Taylor, “What did you just write? Sanctification?”]   

Would you have understood that last sentence better if I’d written instead all out zen master?  Whenever I want to describe a person having reached the pinnacle of the human capacity for self-awareness, inner-peace, understanding of their interconnectedness with the universe, and wisdom, all the words that pop instantly into my mind come from other faith traditions. And yet, my faith tradition has a word for it too: sanctification.  That is, having become perfected in love for the Creator and for all of creation. Just as Buddhists seek enlightenment, Methodism teaches that sanctification is what Christians should have as their goal in life.    

Last year I decided to start getting hardcore serious about striving for sanctification--training my mind like olympians train their bodies. I’m taking a holistic approach: physical exercise, healthy meals, discipline in prayer and scripture study, and enlisting mental health experts to coach me on how to not simply manage stress and negative thoughts but to develop exceptional levels of emotional intelligence so that I can effectively serve on the front lines of any crisis with love, grace and stamina. I'm still a work in progress, but progress is being made.

So here’s my advice to all my fellow canaries: Now more than ever, your country and your world needs you and your sacred gift. This is a “such a time as this” moment. It is time to step up. If you are struggling to control your powers of sensitivity, seek out help. This might mean meeting with a mental health expert to design a mind-training program that is right for you. It might mean joining a support group, and/or it might mean finding a medicine that enhances your ability to think calmly and clearly.***  Please, I beg of you, do whatever it takes to get out of the fetal position and into action.     

Much love from Algeria,

Taylor


*Fittingly, my ancestors were coal miners, and the family homestead is built over an abandoned mine.  
** Dang--Why am I having so much trouble coming up with female examples that don't have an after-school-special/Disney girl-power vibe? Help me out here folks. 

***And in so doing you get to give “taking my big-girl/boy pill” a new meaning.  ;)

Monday, November 14, 2016

When Things Fall Apart: Saint Augustine of Hippo and the Fall of Rome



Remains of the Cathedral of Hippo's mosaic floor
 There are some sermon illustrations I heard as a child that have stuck with me over the years.  One of those was about Saint Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, and his response as he received word in December 410 that the city of Rome had fallen. Admittedly, the thing that originally caught my attention was that there was a city called Hippo. The significance of the story was lost on my younger self, but this past weekend as I had the rare opportunity to visit Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria), I reflected on the fall of the Roman Empire and Augustine’s writings in the context of current events.   

Bishop Augustine sought words of wisdom to offer his deeply shaken congregation, some of them refugees from Rome. He responded to the question he knew they were all asking: How could our God allow this to happen? Could a Christian empire truly fall?  Augustine said to them 
“God does not raise up citadels of stone and marble for us; outside of this world he raises up citadels of the Holy Spirit for us, citadels of love which could never collapse, which will for ever stand in glory when this world has been reduced to ashes. … Rome has collapsed and your hearts are outraged by this.  Rome was built by men like yourself.  Since when did you believe that men had the power to build things that are eternal?  Your souls, filled with the light of the Holy Spirit, will not perish.”

Note what Augustine did not say. He did not tell them that they shouldn’t weep for the suffering—that they had nothing to fear and that everything would be ok. He definitely didn’t say ‘Let’s just calm down and give these Barbarians a chance. They may be stealing from the poor, mocking the vulnerable and sexually assaulting women, but this new administration’s policies may prove to be beneficial to us (although clearly not to everyone). After all, the old regime wasn't perfect either.’  No, what he did say was, in fact, the opposite.  

Augustine said that the City of God and the City of [Hu]man were two separate things. As American University’s chaplain Rev. Mark Shaefer explains in a recent post,
“the City of the World…loves its own power. The rulers of this city, and the people they rule, are dominated by the lust for domination. They seek power to be in control. Those who are oppressed seek power to oppress those who have oppressed them. They strive for success, security, and an orderly life. Babylon and Rome were examples of the City of the World.”  
 The City of God, in contrast,
“has God as the object of its love. The citizens of the City of God live with lives of charity and service toward all. They live with hope as pilgrims in the world.”
Thus, the good news was that Rome’s collapse did not mean that the City of God had also been conquered.  The bad news was that they were right to fear that Hippo would soon fall too.      

Father David Myers writes that ‘twenty years later, the same Augustine lay dying on the floor of this same Cathedral in which the people of Hippo were seeking refuge from the Vandal horsemen who were laying siege to the city, having swept through Spain and across the sea to Africa.  Soon Hippo would be no more.  The Cathedral would be destroyed, but the reality behind the Alpha and the Omega inscribed on the floor of the Cathedral where he lay dying is eternal.’

the Cathedral of Hippo's batistery
So, this weekend I found myself standing on that very same floor—photographing the remains of the intricate mosaic tile floor that appeared in patches between the weeds and pondering the fate of those who had been immersed in the waters of the baptistery my daughter leaned against. I learned through the guide (and cross checked through other sources) that the Vandals lifted the siege of Hippo shortly after Augustine’s death. They burned the city—destroying everything but the cathedral and library. 

I’m still searching for an answer to my question of when and how the cathedral finally fell, but the caretaker of the modern basilica up the hill built in Augustine’s memory told me that their congregation (the only Christian community he knew of in the city) consisted of seven Algerians and a group of university students from subSaharan Africa. 

What’s my point in sharing this?  I think it is this:  Cities and nations rise and fall. I am not going to tell you that Americans and the rest of the world are going to be ok because not all of us are. The cities of humans are full of oppression and injustice, and anyone who tells you that is this all God’s will is referring to a god I do not worship. But, we who seek citizenship in the City of Love are part of something that cannot be destroyed. Our challenge, then, is to hold in tension these truths: our world is not ok and Love will outlive us all.  



the ruins of the Cathedral of Hippo behind me

So, yes, I am paying attention. Yes, I am angry. Yes, I am worried--especially for my friends who are being directly threatened. Yes, I am weeping for those being terrorized. Yes, I’m committed to radical love and hospitality. Yes, I care even about those who are committing acts of violence. Yes, I’m taking deep breaths.Yes, I will stand up for justice even if it kills me. Yes, I am made of stardust. Yes, I am celebrating the helpers and the healers. Yes, I find comfort in knowing that I am part of a ancient narrative of resistance—that while my name may be forgotten, the values I embrace will live on. And, yes, when I look into the eyes of my daughter, her classmates and their teachers here in Algeria who come from many nations and religious traditions, I get a glimpse of the City of God, and in that moment, I am at peace.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Safety Pins and Safe Places

the original Safe Place sign
When I was a kid in the early 1980s, I spotted an unusual sign on the window of a house on our street.  It said “Safe Place,” and it made an impression on me—the idea that a house could be publicly declared as a haven for young people in crisis. It comforted me knowing that house was there. Although my parents' house has acted as a safe haven for many over the years, we never had one of those signs; you had to go through a special training program to earn the Safe Place designation. 


I got to thinking about those old (since revamped) signs this weekend.  In the aftermath of Tuesday’s elections, a lot of white people feel a deep yearning to publicly say “I’m not a hater! You are safe around me!”  Safety pins started trending in my FB newsfeed, and then, as to be expected, some valid criticisms of the safety pin trend and criticisms of how white people reacted to the criticisms were written.  

So, here are my two cents at this moment in time. If your physical appearance usually works in your favor and you are suddenly uncomfortable because you fear that people may be looking at you and assuming the worst, sit with that discomfort for awhile. Let the discomfort be educational. Recognize that the people whom you most want to make feel at ease don't have the luxury of simply sticking a safety pin on their shirt and magically American society will stop suspecting them of being criminals/terrorists/backwards/lazy/usurpers/abominations/etc. They live with discomfort every day, and your safety pin alone isn't going to alleviate their fears that they and their loved ones are in more danger today than they were last week.  

If your motivation is to bring down the anxiety levels of those who feel unsafe and unvalued by letting them know you have their back, there are many ways to do that every day no matter what you wear.  You could nod and smile to strangers, offer your seat on a crowded bus, amplify disregarded comments in the staff meeting, raise your kids to know right from wrong and to have the courage to stand up to bullies, educate yourself and check your own micro-aggressions, etc.

If you want to wear a pin or badge as a silent expression of where you stand, that's totally cool with me. But, as a former scout and child of a retired Marine, I think such things should be earned and taken seriously when displayed. If not, it waters down and even perverts the meaning--just as cross necklaces have become seen more as fashion accessories than identification markers of someone who practices the disciplines of unconditional love, hospitality, and forgiveness. (Isn't sad that wearing a safety pin conveys better than a cross pin the message that a person cares about the lives of others?)  To earn the right to wear a safety pin, I suggest that in addition to immersing yourself in books and documentaries and seeking genuine dialog and friendships with those you wish to be an ally of, read Isobel Debrujah's recent blog post, So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin.   As for me, I'm still debating as to whether I've earned the right to adorn myself with pins, but it seems to me like a rather good life goal. 



Friday, September 02, 2016

Bidding on Life #foreignservice

It is bidding season again. The time when hubby and I look at a long list of job openings all over the world and decide which ones he should request to be assigned. 

When we first joined the FS, I found bidding exciting and liberating—like that scene from Doctor Dolittle where he blindly opens the atlas and goes wherever he happens to plop his pencil down—or countless scenes in Doctor Who where the Doctor mischievously proclaims to his companion that their adventures could take them anywhere in time and space. Super cool—especially for a Hoosier girl-next-door who dreamed big, binged on the Pippin soundtrack, and yearned to find her corner of the sky.     

Fast forward 7 surreal years.  Seven years of crazy adventures, close calls, new friends and numerous au revoirs. Oh, and countless hours sitting on Drexel couches. While my Facebook albums tend to show the moments that look glamorous, there’s a lot of sitting.  Also, a lot of packing and unpacking, a lot of starting over, a lot of time to gaze rather longingly at the lives of friends who have put down deep roots in their communities and are enjoying the fruits of that decision. I can’t help but ponder what would be possible if I picked a spot on planet Earth and stayed there for the long haul.    
    
A good chunk of my nomadic life involves sitting on sofas

And so, here I am making spreadsheets in attempt to systematically form opinions on cities I couldn’t locate on a map a few weeks ago. For reasons I struggle to articulate, this time around I’ve felt increased pressure to bid wisely, to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each place, to pray for discernment of where I'm being called to serve next, to consider whether we wouldn’t be happier returning to Washington DC where we could finally move into that charming cape cod house we bought that was merely missing Kris Kringle's cane in the corner. 



So what will the Denyers decide to do? Settle down or spin the wheel to experience an entirely different slice of life on Earth?   The answer will be revealed mid-October…. 

A certain house on a quiet street in Maryland often calls to me