Monday, 24 March 2014

Alumni Post: Danielle Thomas

Author’s Note: My name is Danielle Thomas. During the Spring semester of 2009, I was blessed beyond measure by the opportunity to spend 4 months in Uganda with the USP program as one of the IMME (Intercultural Ministry and Missions Emphasis) students. I lived in Upper Nabuuti with Mama Joyce, took classes on campus with other USP students, and became close friends with several Ugandan students who lived in Sabiti Hall. Friends and family members in the USA who know I have a heart for missions have often assumed my semester abroad was a missions trip of some kind, in which I was taking things to Uganda or going to serve the people there. In reality, that semester was a semester in which I was loved deeply and served by many, by my friends and fellow students to the USP staff and especially by my incredible host family. And I took much more from Uganda than I gave. As I continue to integrate the lessons I learned in Uganda into my daily life (which is currently lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA), the Lord is showing me ways to love and serve others deeply, following the example set for me in Uganda in 2009.

                  Where am I now? In 2010, after graduating from college with undergraduate degrees in Sociology and Humanities, I moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to begin graduate school in Sociology at Louisiana State University. Although I thought being called into missions might mean going over seas after getting my BA, the Lord had other plans. He has been showing me how lay down roots and serve my community here. I’m learning that missions is a lifestyle and not so much a calling for the future. It’s a call in the present and a call to be present. As I have pursued MA and now my PhD in Baton Rouge, I have stayed busy. I founded and continue to coordinate a summer sports mission trip called SportQuest Baton Rouge and network with many churches and organizations who have a passion for bringing God’s kingdom to earth ( I tutor students as a side job, teach Research Methods to undergraduate students at LSU, work on my dissertation research, and am a faithful member of a local church. I love my life here. I keep a blog at  I still struggle with many things, especially busyness/anxiety and being overcommitted to activities, and the Lord still brings me back to my time in Uganda and reminds me who he wants me to be. And that is where the story I want to share in this blog post begins:

 …But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ ‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:40-42, NIV)
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus…When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. ‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?’Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’” (John 11:5, 20-27, NIV)

January 15, 2014. I sat anxiously on the couch in the living room of my second floor condo. It was late afternoon on a Wednesday, and the natural light from the three large windows behind the couch was dwindling. I faced the television, noting the glare of the light from the windows. Even when the blinds are closed, horizontal bars of light reflect off of the screen. I turned on the TV and pulled up the guide. Good, I thought. It’s a Criminal Minds night. ION television, my go-to channel, airs marathons of different television shows in the evenings. Sometimes, Criminal Minds plays from 4 -5 pm until midnight.

                  It was 6-7 hours later, after midnight, when I turned the television off and decided to go to bed. I was frustrated. Tonight, I had a night off. The previous day, I had finally taken THE EXAM—the huge essay exam I had been preparing for since sometime in June. The general exam for my PhD in Sociology. Teaching and research for the new semester hadn’t started yet. No tutoring, either. It was just a regular weeknight, and I had no appointments to keep or items on my to-do list to check off. Enjoy it, I told myself. Drink it in.

                  Instead, I wasted it on the couch. I didn’t even eat dinner until after 10pm. And the entire time I was on the couch, half-heartedly watching Criminal Minds while multi-tasking on my phone and tablet (email, facebook, news articles, etc.), I was fighting off the nagging feeling that I was forgetting to do something really important. There has to be something I should be working on. The thought rolled around in my head, making it difficult for my mind and heart to rest, even though the only thing I was moving was my fingers on the touch screens of my phone and tablet. When I could think of nothing to do, I mulled over the idea of contacting friends to go out to celebrate taking my exam. I didn’t know if I had passed yet—and wouldn’t for another three weeks, when I would sit for the oral defense portion of the exam—but it was worth celebrating that I had survived round 1 of the general exam. Everyone works tomorrow, I reminded myself. And quickly talked myself out of sending any texts to friends.

                  As the night wound down, and I prepared for bed, a thought hit me. It was separate from the mental conversation I’d been having during my time on the couch. This thought was full of power. Attention-grabbing, response-requiring power. The Holy Spirit whispered. I stood in place as the thought reverberated through me, coming from within and without simultaneously, speaking from my heart and from the heart of God as only the Spirit can. I’ve forgotten how to sit still.

January 9, 2009: Arrival. The airport was balmy and the visa line long. Once we made it to baggage claim, a small, enthusiastic woman chirped greetings and directions. It was even more humid outside, and already dark. I rolled my suitcase toward the tour bus, lumbering along with the other jet-lagged students.

I looked out of the window on the bus and was surprised with how dark everything was. It was impossible to make out the landscape, no matter how much I yearned for a picture of what my home the next four months was going to be like.

                   Orientation was too early the next morning, and too short. Before I knew what was going on, I was crammed into a small van with several other students, all of our luggage, and heavy, bright blue tin lock boxes that held supplies given to us by the staff. I couldn’t make heads or tails of some of the contents of that box. What was that round thing that looked like it should be hanging over a baby’s crib? A hanger suspending a circle, around which there were numerous pinchers, like plastic clothespins. I supposed my host family would explain.

She was sitting in the grass on a banana leaf mat with two younger girls when the van pulled into her yard. She came to greet me as the driver dumped my luggage and my lock box on the grass at my feet. I was surprised at how quickly the van pulled away. The young girls giggled and picked up my luggage, carrying it up a hill toward a small, stone house.

Less than 24 hours in a new and very strange country, and I stood in the grass, facing my host mother. Instead of asking me any questions, she simply smiled and invited me to sit on the mat in the shade of the avocado tree in the yard. The girls would take my things into my room. There was no hurry to explore. Did I drink coke? Relief washed over me. I thought I was going to be on a four-month soda fast, which was going to be difficult considering my caffeine addiction. The coke was in a glass bottle. The best kind.

We sat on the mat with the girls, speaking only occasionally, for a couple of hours. The day passed slowly, and I sat anxiously. There were so many questions I was eager to ask, but the woman was slow to answer each one I let slip out, and she never followed my questions with a question of her own. Frustrated by the one-sidedness of the conversation, I eventually fell silent.

January 12-16,, 2009: The First Week. I had blisters on my feet and ankles before I walked a mile with my host mother from home to campus on Monday morning. The first day of class was stressful. I was confused as professors explained limited numbers of copies of textbooks would be available in the library, and they would give further directions for assignments as the semester went on. I wondered how I would manage to track down books in the library, read them and do homework assignments, and walk home each night by 7pm, which was the curfew for home-stay students. How would I spend time with my family and earn good grades?

That evening, I left campus around 6:15pm. It had taken us around 25 minutes that morning to walk from the village to campus, and I tried to memorize the directions. Now all I needed to do was reverse them. I set out on what should have been a short journey. Over an hour later, I was wandering the paths of the village as daylight dwindled, tears streaming down my face, trying to remember which small path led to my home. I had remembered every landmark between campus and home except the entrance from the main path to my host family’s compound. At last, I spotted a cow hang her head over a fence, the Lord giving me the landmark I needed. Her name was Kwagala, which meant love. I loved my family’s cow and gave her numerous pats of gratitude throughout the semester. She was my saving grace after the terror of being lost and alone in the village.

Later in the week, on campus, I faced off with one of the other American students in the IMME quarters. “You have a type A personality,” she declared after listening to me vent about how stressed I was about balancing homework and relationships with my host family. “You need to control everything. You can’t deal without structure. You need to relax. You’re not gonna make it here like that.” I can’t remember how I responded, but I still remember how flustered and offended I felt. It was the kind of irritation that burns in your cheeks. I did not have a type A personality. OK, so maybe I could be a little demanding. And maybe I was a gifted student who craved structure. And maybe it was hard sometimes for me to make friends…the conversation pricked too many insecurities. I silently vowed I would prove her wrong. (Note: she later became my best American friend in USP—the Lord used her to sharpen and encourage me in numerous ways).

After I arrived home each evening by 7pm, I would sit at the dinner table with my host mother, who I was becoming more comfortable calling “Mama Joyce,” and waited for dinner. The first night I asked her when dinner was, she responded “Whenever it is finished.” My sister Ida usually cooked. It was usually finished sometime between 9-10pm. Those first few weeks I took out school books and read as we waited. It helped the silence feel less awkward and time pass more quickly. Even though Mama Joyce usually sat at the table with me, there was more silence than conversation. Sometimes she would answer my questions. She might ask how my day was. She might tell a story or give me some advice about how to navigate a confusing cultural situation. But more often than not, she would make some tea and we would sit quietly until dinner was ready.

Mid-April, 2009: Last Days. It was my final week as a student, and I couldn’t wait to get home from campus. While I once used to wait until as close as 7 as possible, shortening the time between my arrival home and dinner, I was now eager to make it to the kitchen table. Time with family was sweet. My time in Uganda was ending too quickly. Days that once lasted forever, with too many long stretches of silence and waiting, felt hurried, and the constant rushing was irritating to me. We were getting ready to take a trip to Rwanda, two weeks away that I would rather spend with Mama Joyce. Then we would return for a few days of debrief before leaving for the USA.

By the time I made it home, I was overwhelmed with fear of the coming changes and dread that I would waste my remaining days with Mama Joyce. How was it possible to thank her, and to show her how much I loved her and to communicate to her how afraid I was to leave her?

I took my shoes off outside and slid into my slippers before crossing the threshold into my home. I squeezed between the wall and the table in the dining room, and set my backpack down on the floor of the adjoining living room. Although there was a couch, I sat on the floor instead. I could feel the cold concrete beneath the thin rug, and it was a relief after a long walk in the sun. I laid out on my back and sighed deeply. I sat still and thought I might take a brief nap.
Then she was there beside me. Mama Joyce, my 65-year-old host mother, my second mother, who birthed me in a new culture, got onto the floor and laid beside me. She held my hand and we lay still in silence. Sweet silence. I basked in her presence. She radiated empathy. At once, I knew she understood.  Time was short, and words would be wasted and fall short of explaining the feelings we shared. No amount conversation would be adequate for me to explain my love and gratitude for her. Four months of slow days and long evenings at the kitchen table waiting for dinner had gradually worn away my discomfort with, and any awkwardness in, the silence. Silence was like a sanding tool, rubbing away rough patches and insecurities, teaching me how to sit quietly with myself, and eventually to sit quietly with others.  

After my first couple of months in Uganda, Mama Joyce had spent a few days considering a Ugandan name for me. At last, she had triumphantly christened me “Mirembe,” and explained, “It means peace.” When she considered my character, she told me, she felt peace was one of my virtues. She hoped I would always carry peace with me and also that I would be peace to others. Names in Uganda are both a testament to existing character and an expression of hope for the present and future. Naming is a serious business. Mirembe. The girl who struggled to contain questions, who talked too much and too fast—the girl with a type A personality who couldn’t cope without structure—the girl who burned with frustration at the kitchen table for several hours every evening for the first several weeks in Uganda—this girl was to be called Mirembe. I wondered if Sarah in the Old Testament had felt similar disbelief and amusement when she laughed at God’s promise that she would bear a son.

That evening, near the end of my time with Mama Joyce, we sat still together on the living room floor, experiencing the depth of one another’s presence. Depth that can only be felt in the silence. I smiled as the fear dissipated and I remembered who I was, by the grace of God through my relationship with Mama Joyce: Mirembe.

January 15th, 2014: Nearly Five Years Later. When the Holy Spirit spoke, I’ve forgotten how to sit still, memories from Uganda flooded back to me. It is not unusual for an experience to trigger this kind of memory-rush. Most often these are moments of what I call culture-rubs, or instances when I realize there is some American-Ugandan conflict within me. Holding two cultures in one heart and conscience is not always an easy thing to reconcile. But part of the process of integrating what I learned in Uganda with my life in America has been to revisit and, if necessary, reintegrate the lessons as new challenges of reconciliation arise. I wondered when I lost sight of Mirembe and when discomfort with stillness had crept back into my heart. I wondered how long it might take me to train myself to once again rest in stillness. Because in Uganda I realized that when I am able to sit still with myself, and with others, then I am also able to still my heart at the feet of the Lord. It brings back the Martha-Mary stories in the Bible.

There are at least two times the sisters are mentioned by name and we are given glimpses of their character. I want to focus on Martha because I identify with her—her worry and irritation, her logic and determination. When we first meet Martha in Luke, she appears busy and anxious. While she would like to sit still, she feels it would not be productive. She becomes irritated when she is not receiving the help she believes she deserves from her sister. Later, in John, however, it is Martha, and not Mary, who takes the lead and goes out to meet Jesus. She speaks her mind, telling him if he had come sooner Lazarus would be alive. Jesus promises her Lazarus will rise, and she takes him literally. Of course, Lazarus will rise again at the resurrection. And yes, Jesus is the Messiah.  Although she is about to find out that Jesus means to raise Lazarus from the dead in a matter of minutes, her statement of faith reveals a determination and peace that are cutting through the busyness and anxiety that Jesus corrected in Luke. In her grief, and likely in anger, she still trusts Jesus’ word and shows her desire to focus on what really matters.

I am Martha. Busy. Anxious. A leader. An administrator. Someone who speaks bluntly and then wishes she had been more gracious.  Strong-willed. Stubborn. I am usually more willing to move, to go out and meet Jesus, than I am to sit quietly at his feet and wait for him to speak. Jesus loves both sisters and does not overlook Martha’s strengths. He cares for her heart and reminds her that work might seem important, but time with him is a lasting foundation for the rest of her life. When Jesus later explains to Martha that he is “the resurrection and the life,” and asks her if she believes, Martha, like Peter, makes a declaration of faith, “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is come into the world.” When I put myself in her shoes, I think Martha must have spent many anxious moments reminding herself who is in charge and who matters more, calming her anxious heart with the words of her Savior. Striving for what cannot be taken away. Her confession of faith comes quickly because her anxiety calls for consistent confession.

In Uganda, Mama Joyce patiently showed me how to be more still. Although I often feel like Danielle-Martha, Mama Joyce opened the door for Danielle-Mirembe to emerge. The hope and the promise of the name remind me to repent consistently. It is a repentance that calls me to still my anxious heart with the peace of my Father so I can be strengthened to make peace when needed. When I compare Martha’s interaction with Jesus in Luke and her journey to go out and meet Jesus after the death of her brother in John, I see a change of heart. Instead of allowing herself to be consumed with her grief and anger, and with all of the duties and activities that must have come with the death of a loved one, Martha went out to meet Jesus. In my mind, because she had made peace with herself and with her present situation, she went out to make peace with Jesus. Her fortitude was like a shield of peace for her sister Mary, who in her grief did not move to Jesus until he called for her.

My present life is filled with activity, and I am often tempted to let my anxiety and my busyness turn my eyes from Jesus. My experiences in Uganda, my christening as Mirembe, and the time I spent at the kitchen table with Mama Joyce help me remember what cannot be taken away. My peace of mind is fleeting when I rely on my own strength to maintain it, and my emotions are like the ocean’s waves, rising and falling, In the end, however, the amount of time I spend at the Lord’s table, resting silently in his presence, will matter more than the amount of pages I read or papers I write,  the number of people I recruit and lead, or how many children attend a sports camp I have organized.  

I am eternally grateful for the time I spent as a USP student and for the opportunity in my present life to continue to reconcile Martha and Mirembe.

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