Quarantine Cuddles and 2020 Snapshot
In this newsletter, you will find:
Stories from our time stateside in January
Updates about green lights and open doors for ministry in Malawi
A look at our current Co-vid19 reality
Vision for the future
And as always...piles of pictures loaded with Brady lady cuteness.
"If we aren't experiencing Jesus' love, then we can only offer our own love, and that is often pretty needy."
This was my take-away from the first session at Young Life's all staff conference held in Orlando Florida, Jan 3-10. Over and over again, speakers, worship leaders, focus groups, and seminars all aligned on this one point: "Are you experiencing the Love of God or are you just talking to kids about it?" For many staff like myself, it was a gut check - a very necessary pause in the middle of full speed, all in, commitment to reach every kid in every school in every country all around the world. As the conference went on, we heard from staff around the world. We celebrated what God was doing in Alaska, Arusha, and Armenia. We celebrated that Young Life has increased its presence to 104 countries now!! And we prayed for access to the 126 we have yet to reach. Towards the end of our time together, we were challenged by speaker and Pastor David Platt - "How will students know that God came FOR them, if we don't go TO them?" - This is the heart beat of Young Life - going TO them, WITH the gospel, FOR His glory.
Another highlight from January was celebrating my parents' 35th wedding anniversary! My three siblings and I organized a vow renewal ceremony attended by over 100 close friends and family - it was a PARTY! Ellie said, "I thought Mawmaw and Papaw were already married...🤷♂️" Good times and great memories!
Between Carly's work schedule and my travel/speaking schedule, we slept in 11 different beds (if you count the Atlanta airport as a bed), and visited 15 different cities in less than five weeks. It was a whirlwind, but it was a great time!
We even stopped off to see one of my lifelong best friends, Michael Pursley, with his family (photo below) in Germany on our way home to Malawi.
Upon arrival back in Malawi, it felt right. It felt good - like home. Our friends and neighbors were excited to have us back, our church family celebrated, and our Young Life friends reached out with warm welcomes. It just felt good.
Schools were already back in session when we arrived in the first week of February, and after a few phone calls and a couple meetings, contact work with kids and frisbee games picked right up where I had left them. Relationships felt solid. Kids starting asking more questions about how long we were going to be in Malawi and what brought us there in the first place.
Within the first two weeks back, volunteers who were on the fence had given firm commitments, faculty and staff at Hillview spoke on behalf of Young Life at a senior staff meeting, and all doors were open for campaigners to begin at BOTH Saint Andrews and Hillview International Schools. I couldn't believe it - in a matter of days, faculty from both schools called with confirmation, dates, times, and available space/rooms.
To be clear, we arrived in Malawi 30 January, 2019 with the vision of reaching every student at international schools in Blantyre. In a year's time, the Lord has built teams, raised up leaders, put together a committee of adults, brought together kids from a variety of faith backgrounds and granted us access where no other Christian organization has access.
On 28 Feb, I (along with two other leaders) sat in a room with 8 high school students from Saint Andrews. This group meets every two weeks on Friday evenings, and has grown to 12 :-)
On 10 March, I (along with another leader) sat in a room with 7 high school students from Hillview. This group meets every Tuesday afternoon immediately after school for an hour before our frisbee club. This group has grown to 11, and has gotten off to a fantastic start.
So during the month of March, I've had to privilege to sit in a room with 23 different high school kids and dig into the story of God's love manifesting itself to us through the person of Jesus. During these conversations here are some questions kids have thrown out,
"Where did Jesus go when He disappeared?...I mean, I know He died, and Easter is about Him raising from the dead....but where is He now?"
"Isn't God mad at me when I have doubts?"
"Can we really interact with God...like...even as a teenager?"
"When is it ok to disagree with my parents about my faith?"
"How can we know what happens after we die?"
Y'all....these kids were STARVING for real conversation - for someone to sit with them, listen to their questions, their worries, their doubts, and whether they know it yet or not, they are hungry for the good news ... that God loves them in their mess. For the good news that He pursues broken people, and through repentance (admitting we don't have it all together and TURNING toward God) and faith in Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection, we can know God, walk with Jesus, and be made new by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
This is good news - this is the gospel - this is the light in the darkness ... what a privilege it is - what a joy it is - what an honor it is to carry it onto high school campuses. Take a moment and just celebrate with me!! 🕺🙌🕺🙌
This is Tiya and Sandra Falinya along with their two year old Ishmael at his birthday party. They are a part of the Flood Church family, and they are a HUGE part of why Malawi feels like home. They also serve full time with World Vision!
Our CoVid19 Reality
I'll be honest guys...I really struggled with this. I say "struggled" (past tense) because I'm at peace with where we are now, but that was not the case a week ago.
When I heard some organizations were pulling their staff out of countries all around the world, my first thought wasn't kind or understanding - it was judgmental. "Sure, leave just when people need you most." Within that thought was sheer determination to stay in Malawi come hell or high water. I was going to prove to my Malawian friends just how much I was willing to sacrifice for them. I was going to be different. I was going to show them just how much they could count on me, depend on me.... at the root of all of this was simple pride masquerading as love.
I know that it was pride because when I received a call from Steve Larmey, Young Life's Senior VP over all ministry in Africa, Middle East, and Asia....my first thought was "What will people think of me if I leave?"....hear that? Fear of man. "Me", "I" .... not exactly a picture of humility.
Carly and I listened to Steve and his suggestion to spend this unprecedented time in WV close to family. We prayed and thought of our aging parents and grandparents. We thought of our girls. We tried to imagine what Malawi would look like with closed borders, no available emergency evacuation plan. It was an excruciating decision. My heart felt like it was ripping in two....but by the end of the day on 20 March, we had tickets confirmed with Ethiopian Airlines for 23 March.
It was a whirlwind, and there were so many variables. Not the least of which is the reality that just weeks ago we learned of my mom’s diagnosis with breast cancer. She’s set to have surgery this week. Also, as many of you know, Carly’s dad has a serious heart condition, and my Dad has Parkinson’s. There’s a lot going on with our family and we felt being near them during this pandemic was the wisest move. Thanks for your prayers and support through this while we are away from our Malawian friends.
So for now we are hiding out in the WV hills where Carly grew up. Her family is trying to sell the 100 acre farm. So while it sits empty, we will be mowing grass, cutting wood to heat the house, and hopefully hosting some family and friends once our 14 day quarantine is complete.
As you can imagine… our precipitous departure from Malawi was not particularly organized. We were frantic, rushed, and emotionally torn. Our house was left looking like a natural disaster had recently occurred. On the way to the airport Ellie was riding in her car seat and pondering out loud (as four-year olds are prone to do…) what she thought of the whole thing and how it compared to our prior trips, especially when she and I travelled back in June 2019. “Life was a lot easier before I had a sister,” she said. “Maybe I made the wrong decision.”
At the time Zack and I laughed it off. It was humorous that she thought the chaos was due to Miriam and that she thought it was her decision alone that had made us have a second child. Lately I’ve been thinking about it a little more and I realized it is probably how God feels about us. We sit there in the metaphorical back seat pondering what we could have done to change a situation that feels out of control and wondering which decisions we should have made differently…
My point here is that it’s about time for me to acknowledge I don’t really know what God is doing and what is going to happen. At times in this process I’ve been tempted to believe I made the wrong decision at one point or another but I think the reality is I just can’t see the big picture yet.
Here is what I do know:
Since December I have continued to volunteer as an Emergency Medicine consultant in the department 1-2 days per week while continuing to work on my master’s degree. This has allowed me to continue to be a part of the consultant’s meetings and maintain relationships while still stepping back enough to be present with my family and allow Zack to dive into ministry. During this time, I learned I hate working in an office at home, I am not very good at prioritizing my work over family when given the option, and that a person can simultaneously be appreciative of a season God has given them and also be appreciative it is just a season.
Fortunately, the College of Medicine in Blantyre, Malawi is preparing to start an Emergency Medicine residency program (they call it an EM M-Med program) and they are looking for a full-time faculty member. They need an Emergency Medicine trained physician and, in a country that has no residency, I happen to be one of the only ones available (I’m certainly the only jobless one.) I have submitted my application and am waiting to hear the response. The initial goal was to recruit for the class that would start in September of 2020 but that timeline might change based on the recent world events. I hope I will have more information in the near future, but I am trying to recognize I may not get details when I want them.
My glorious plans to finish my master’s degree were thwarted this year. It will be impossible for me to complete my research project as scheduled due to our change in location. However, the reality is that all non-essential activities were stopped at the hospitals in preparation for COVID and I would not have been able to complete the necessary interviews if we had stayed in country. This is not the way I planned it… but I’m beginning to learn that things rarely are. There is nothing like a global pandemic to help you realize how arbitrary many of your self imposed deadlines are.
Of course by this point in the newsletter you know we are stateside. As Zack mentioned, there were a variety of factors that went into our decision to weather the COVID storm from WV. My role as a medical professional made our conversations different than the other expats. As an emergency physician, I have a sincere desire to be a part of the front line so hiding in our house was never really an option. However, in Malawi I regularly work with inadequate resources and inadequate or nonexistent personal protective equipment. I could make peace about exposing myself in this situation, but not my family. With more and more countries closing their borders daily we knew Malawi was only a matter of time. For us, closed borders also meant no option for medical evacuation. I was very torn between my desire to help and my desire to protect my family. By returning to West Virginia I am able to do both. For the time being I plan on working at the same hospital I worked at in January located in Bath Co. Virginia. I was scheduled to return in June but obviously my assistance is more timely now. This will allow me to serve in the COVID response while knowing my family is safe and it will have the added benefit of helping to offset the costs of living in two different countries. Here is what I don’t know. What comes next. I guess we never really know this information but we tend to trick ourselves into thinking we do. This just happens to be a season where I am acutely aware of my backseat position. Love to you all, Carly
SO NOW WHAT?
Young Life meetings and gatherings are canceled globally. So even if we were in Malawi all of my work would be from home via Zoom, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms. Right Now media and the YouVersion Bible app provide great resources for us to lead kids and leaders spiritually from a distance in this time.
I will work from 4-10amEST (which is 10am - 4pm Malawi time) Monday - Friday in an effort to stay connected to students, families, administrators and teachers at the schools.
Carly and I also are involved in the leadership of our church in Blantyre and will be on calls and sending videos for them.
While we are in the US, we will be able to more easily stay connected to friends, family, and donors here.
Finally, as a family, we are going to enjoy the many gifts of the WV hills: mountain biking, kayaking, fishing, hiking, and more.
So let’s stay in touch - let’s pray together and for one another, and let’s be wise in this season. We love you guys and are so grateful for each of you. Please keep in touch. Zack, Carly, Ellie Jo, and Miriam Rose