for all the miles.

in december, returning to washington, i opened the car door, the end of the travels at last, and breathed in that soft, earthy scent of the forest. and with it, a wave of intense nostalgia. i had missed that freshness, that crisp cold of winter evergreens, the smells of childhood, of unnumbered adventures, of a general woodland existence.

these last few years there have been other notable smells, laden with memory, in other places, and i catch whiffs of them here and there. the puff of diesel fumes that brings me back to the fishing boats of bristol bay, or following some lumbering truck uphill in kigali; memories of rwanda captured in the bottle of akabanga hot sauce i bring with me everywhere; the way cigarette smoke makes me think fondly of rome; the heavy scents of cooking oil and battered things through which i imagine myself in glasgow, chippys and take-out joints on every corner.

and there was one familiar smell i experienced recently that i had not expected: that of eucalyptus. in rwanda, whether on the hill above our house, walking down from the refugee camp, or anywhere else, really, the eucalyptus was ubiquitous. not native, but ever present, and its scent distinctive. and, in that corner of ecuador in which we just spent two weeks, invasive eucalyptus reigns. but i am not angry at its presence, i hold no naturalist indignation at the drastic changing of ecosystems (well, maybe a little). for without the eucalyptus the places we visited, where we may work someday, would not be so abundantly forested, there would be a lack of firewood to keep people warm on those chilly mountain nights, fewer shady paths to explore, no beautiful beams, locally cut, with which to create new and needed buildings on the property. those thin trees – gray-green leaves, peeling, snake-like bark, that distinctive smell, growing like weeds – give shape and character to a place like hacienda el refugio. and the familiar smells were comforting.

we were invited by friends to visit them outside of quito, ecuador with the mind of possibly joining them in their work. at el refugio they host groups, interns, teams, utilizing outdoor experiences to facilitate a deeper connection to God. our two weeks there were spent getting acquainted with staff, north american and ecuadorian; we shared many great conversations over many wonderful meals. we spent some time as tourists, hiking, shopping, exploring corners of a country new to us. and we saw a vision of camp ministry that reached beyond the initial brief experience: the training of facilitators, the discipleship of interns, the connections to other ministries across ecuador, and the educational experiences for short term teams, all equip those engaged to understand themselves, their God, and their world better and thus better bring spiritual and social changes to their own communities. thus, joining this team would not be simply helping a retreat/camping ministry maintain its functions, but would utilize, build upon, our years of international living, our combined decades of varied ministry experience, the recent training in community development.

when, for a week, we stayed in a somewhat secluded cabin on the el refugio grounds, i spent free time walking, exploring, with ivy, often napping, in a backpack carrier. the grounds themselves are fairly expansive; dorms, offices, cabins, prayer garden, meeting spaces, and a host of trails snaking uphill, connecting an array of challenge course elements, both high and low. the property displays a range of vegetation, from the clustered trees crowning the high ridge, down through eucalyptus forest across the hillsides, into dank, thick growth in the valley, where a natural spring supplies the camp with water. to me this was all wonderful, easy access to natural beauty. i was exploring, but also thinking, processing, imagining, praying, wondering what it would be like to someday, possibly, find myself among the eucalyptus here.

and i do the same now, back in washington, wandering the snowy streets. decisions await us. but we seek to take the time we need, as two children allow, to make this choice well, to ask others and our Father what things are best, for our family, for ourselves, for our ministry. and our thinking is expanded by explorations in other directions. a supporting church in illinois is considering me for a position there. the work, arguably, would be similar to the ministry partnership development i would be doing through el refugio. but not far from family, and among a community we know and love. there are pros and cons to each, exciting opportunity in either.

after months of feeling lost in a directionless abyss of options, thwarted hopes, and closed doors, things are – life is – beginning to feel a bit more solid, though any direction we take will necessitate yet another season of transition. a friend, in the autumn, after we had described our abyss, saw it as a canvas, blank, awaiting our contribution. i think about these views often, one lost, one hopeful. i think too of a friend in glasgow praying for us, telling us this was a season of new wine, new wine skins. we’re not entirely sure what that means. but, hopefully, we pray, think, dream, imagine. we continue, stepping, as is necessary, in faith, knowing He is with us.

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in the bleak midwinter.

in that flurry of adrenaline-fueled activity, juggling packing, cleaning, and the needs of children, we somehow left glasgow, flew the hours to chicago, visited friends and family for a dozen days, including a trip to champaign, repacked or stored everything brought from scotland, flew farther west, landed in washington. and here we stay for the time being, in the remains of the christmas chaos, still connecting with friends long distant, still trying to imagine what our lives are now.

there were incredible moments in these transitions, and difficult ones; much laughter, too many goodbyes. through our ministry work in various corners of various countries, we have been blessed by communities in many places. but our meetings with friends are rare, brief, happy moments in lives lived apart. i tried to capture these strangely beautiful meetings, connections in time as much as in place.

reflecting on our time among these scattered communities, having left a new such group in scotland, i think about the nature of our ministry. near the end of november, a long, beautiful conversation with friends old and new at a mosque held certain turns of thought that left me wondering. i had to step away from all that i thought i knew and reengage with the basic tenets of my faith, things i knew so well they had been hidden by other concerns: the very nature of Christ, of God. it was this glorious season of advent/christmas, disjointed though it felt amid all our traveling, that helped me to reform my thoughts, beliefs. i had seen a fundamental divergence between islam and christianity: the incarnation. the belief that God loves us to such a bizarre degree that He would dwell among us, share in our trials, joys, pain, and death, and thus spark a glimmer of hope in a brutal world. this is the character of our loving God, this our reason to rejoice at christmas.

and i believe that such is our own calling, to live life radically together, whatever that contextually means. we have been blessed by attempts at such living in the past and hope that we have added some goodness to community here and there. though this feels difficult now with communities so far apart, hard to reach. but wherever life takes us in this new year, i think this theme will guide us, the hope found for us in the incarnation, and the example that we might likewise go and do.

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the howling.

it may come as no surprise to some of you that i tend to read a lot. as in, i rarely (never) leave the house without a book in some form.  i used to boast that i averaged over a book a week, reading between sixty and seventy books a year. this year has more than doubled that number, and it is not yet over. i will use the term completed instead of read, for many of these books i listened to every word instead of reading every word. i read on the long bus rides, listen when washing dishes, read while walking to university (or anywhere), listen while grocery shopping. no, i don’t remember everything i hear/read, but who, i ask you, does? i have historically read more novels than non-fiction, but there are reasons behind my fiction choices, some part of the world, some element of human experience, about which i want to learn or ponder. or maybe i’m just working through everything charles dickens ever wrote. although it’d be hard to read his novels and not become more socially aware.

if you care, which you may not, i highlight below a handful of the outstanding books from this year’s reading explosion. i will not write about all 140+ books. i include novels i couldn’t put down and the historical or social explorations that blew my mind. i hope you find something that strikes you. i hope you are challenged.

to begin, i will mention that november is native american heritage month. the recent buzz around there there by tommy orange is deserved. i encourage you also to look into an indigenous peoples’ history of the united states by roxanne dunbar-ortiz, being less a straight history and more a look into the structures of european and american colonialism/imperialism that have historically crushed native peoples, which impact mindsets today. the book the new trail of tears by naomi schaefer riley was less insightful than i had hoped, arguing essentially for better routes to assimilation for native peoples into white american cultural norms; perhaps, i would posit, we should question these norms as the only way into so-called civilization. the novel flight by sherman alexie, while a short read, was actually quite emotionally intense and challenging and i rather enjoyed it. but i enjoy most of alexie’s writings.

ok that was this month. on to the rest of the year.

fiction:

God’s bits of wood by sembene ousmane: following the exploits of a railroad workers’ strike in senegal in the middle of the last century, based on actual events, this book is incredible. tragic and triumphant, it captures the destructive layers of colonialism, from casual, racist violence to awful labor practices. but also the courageous fight for rights and dignity. though the strike is long and the situations dire, at each new phase more little heroes rise up. i was awed by their endurance. tense, brilliant, vastly interesting.

the autumn of the patriarch by gabriel garcia marquez: i deeply admire the bizarre excellence in gabriel garcia marquez. as with other works of magic realism, this novel does not disappoint in the strangeness factor. selling away a country’s section of the caribbean to pay off debts, leaving a vast wasteland where once was water? ok, then. this book is just a few chapters long, but don’t expect paragraphs or straightforward grammatical choices. the entire book is a streaming flow of words, thoughts, ideas, stories, conversations, everything and nothing. but we follow in the stream, with some difficulty, perhaps, the seemingly infinite reign of a caribbean country’s dictator. this one’s not for everyone, but i couldn’t put it down. partly because there were rarely any good stopping points.

small country by gael faye: i had the joy of seeing the musician gael faye perform some of his songs and scenes from this book at the edinburgh book festival this summer. this novel is a coming of age story set in burundi around the time of the rwandan genocide. humorous, insightful, and tragic, it is an intensely readable book with deep feeling.

in the castle of my skin by george lamming: another coming of age story, with autobiographical content, this novel explores themes of communal and personal identity during a period of social change in barbados. though with a subtle, slower pace, i still devoured its intimate look at colonial life from a number of perspectives.

the unreal and the real: where on earth by ursula k. le guin: i love le guin’s work because she often offers commentary on our world through science fiction and fantasy. so with the mention of this collection of short stories, i bring her up as one of my favorite authors. these stories, though, if you enjoy good stories, are particularly good. from the strange to the mundane, she crafts her work well and is wonderfully inventive in small and immense ways. i also read her tales of earthsea this year, a delightful return for me to that world.

heroes of the frontier by dave eggers: this one was lent to me by a friend and i have to admit i was skeptical i would enjoy it, though i generally like eggers’ work. but this story about a mother heading to alaska with her two kids, escaping her fractured life, was wonderful, a book of humor and emotion, a series of misadventures when aimless and on the move. and eggers encapsulates the love and frustration and all-around joyful weirdness of parenting incredibly well.

 

non-fiction:

the half has never been told: slavery and the making of american capitalism by edward e. baptist: this was one of those books i could not stop listening to, often with eyes wide and mouth agape. not that much of the history was particularly new to me, but how it was all arranged and processed was truly brilliant. the book brought to light certain heavy aspects of slavery in the states, how it developed over decades, centuries, regions. and how slavery built the america we know, an incredibly important acknowledgement. though i loved many books this year, this may top the list as a favorite. in content, not easy to consume, but deeply meaningful and needed. i can hardly recommend it enough.

teachers as cultural workers: letters to those who dare teach by paulo freire: an incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking little book. freire here hits the big themes i love in his writing, hope and humanization and liberation, delicious topics so closely tied to why i work in ministry and the hope i see in the gospels. he encourages us to see education not as a tool by which we fit children into boxes, but through which we might better assess our world, its structures and changes, and ask what around us, taken for granted, might actually be hindering full human development, what is dehumanizing others, what is shutting out those on ‘the margins’? some say these are radical questions, but i believe they are good questions for followers of Christ to be asking. i include this book also to bring attention to freire, and especially his seminal work pedagogy of the oppressed, which was one of the central books in my recently completed master’s program. he encapsulates in words many of the ambiguous frustrations i had when living and working in rwanda, issues of neo-colonialism, economic development, and western influence over the rest of the world. i would also point you to franz fanon’s the wretched of the earth and decolonising the mind by ngugi wa thiong’o.

orientalism by edward said. this one is for the academics. i suggest you brush up on your french and read everything ever written by a european. just joking. kind of. said describes the pervasive historical mindset that sees non-european cultures and places and peoples as being purely objects of study, of worth in the eyes of europeans mainly because of experience or learning to be gained by europeans, not having inherent worth in themselves. he traces this trend through history and literature and dismantles its dehumanizing core. this is one of the foundational works of postcolonialism, being, very simply put, a method of seeking to understanding the world by listening to the voices that have traditionally been silenced, unheard or unheeded. this guided my framework when working on my dissertation; i sought not to know what the integration of refugees into scottish society meant to policy makers and scholars, but to hear of integration experiences from refugee community leaders themselves, how they structured their realities within changing situations. i cited orientalism and other of said’s works regularly.

we built the wall by eileen traux: this was an incredibly insightful and very recent exploration into the united states’ southern border, from policy to prisons to charitable organizations and personal lives. it gives scope to the issues and names and faces to the people involved. i include this to bring up a smattering of other titles around topics of migration and refugees, such as: violent borders: refugees and the right to move by reece jones; border vigils: keeping migrants out of the rich world by jeremy harding; the beast: riding the rails and dodging narcos on the migrant trail and a history of violence: living and dying in central america by oscar martinez; the devil’s highway by luis alberto urrea. such books, such discussions, are needed more than ever.

managing the undesirables: refugee camps and humanitarian government by michel agier: when working in a refugee camp in rwanda, i was plagued by looming questions i could barely articulate, questions about protracted refugee situations, humanitarian sustainability, agency in the face of oppressive laws and sustained poverty, etc. agier in this work and in on the margins of the world puts in his analyses of refugee camps everything i would hope someone would say. incredibly validating for me, these books are more than that, a great examination of the humanitarian machine that fumblingly maintains camps, especially on the african continent, and the kinds of survival strategies refugees employ, and the success and failures of all. similarly insightful books are in the wake of the affluent society: an exploration of post-development by serge latouche and refugees, conflict and the search for belonging by lucy hovil.

nightwalking: a nocturnal history of london by matthew beaumont: i listened to this book almost entirely while, yes, walking at night, getting lost in glasgow’s autumnal lanes. though walking at night is a favorite pastime of mine, i realize as a white male this is a fairly privileged endeavor, and the book reflects this, following the literary lives of white males and their relationship with changing urban existence over a course of centuries. while the author implicitly criticized laws that restricted movement and personal activity, the book is not an encouragement towards profligate or libertine lifestyles, but rather shows how moods and ideas about ‘nightwalkers’ changed over time, what these changes say about the city, and the literature from eras that show these changes. the chapters culminate in long sections about charles dickens which i loved immensely. this one is more academic, but written to appeal to many. you may hate it. it enthralled me.

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magic mirror.

and in the drowsy crispness of autumn, we welcome another child.

iona was blessedly born to us, a successful vbac, on october 17th. she procrastinated in arriving, a week beyond the due date, but when she finally chose to make her move, the evening before labor was to be induced, she came faster than we would have expected. before the doctors could numb the pain, stephanie awesomely delivered her. in the solemn early morning, weary and amazed, we held our new child.

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iona is the name of the island where christianity first came to scotland, and, by a stretch through other languages, it is a female derivative of john, my mother’s father. her middle names, allyn and marie, both reference family names from other branches. in these we make connections to those who came before, in our own families and in the global body of Christ.

parents of two. it is a simple concept, really, and in reality, dreamlike. approaching the due date i failed in attempts to wrap my mind around what this means, what adding another child alongside ivy would be like. yet ivy provided something small, simple, in its way, incredible, the thing that brought the fact of another child home to me. recently we acquired a duplo set including four farm animals, and ivy gave them names. the cow became daddy, the pig mommy, the cat was ivy herself. i think, hope, the designations were based on size alone and not on some subtle commentary about us. it was quite cute to see her playing with our family in toy form, having adventures, singing songs. but there was one more animal, and together we deemed the little chicken baby sister. and there before me, before it was a reality in human form, was our family of four.

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our family of four. it is still strange to say.

the addition of iona to our family, while requiring learning, adjustments, creates some feeling of completeness. we enjoy a period away from other obligations, welcome visiting friends (and the delicious meals they bring), enjoy autumn in all its glory.

yet, as discussed in our previous post, iona’s arrival comes at a strange time. after locking myself away from much social activity this summer, maintaining a very part-time work schedule, to finish my dissertation (for which i received an delightfully high grade), i began to reengage in work more thoroughly in september. but october’s blooming signaled the end of the pregnancy, a bustle of preparations, the baby, more time away from ministry.

with the stale newness of parenting a lone toddler, the acclimatizing to a new city and culture, scattered work schedules, grad school, and the pregnancy, the last fourteen months, work-wise especially, have felt disjointed. false starts, stumbled plans, missed connections. i feel as if there was potential, is potential, but that we were never able, one way or another, to fully realize it, take advantage. every week something was planned, something else would come up. every choice laced with guilt over an opportunity abandoned. such is life, i suppose. such is ministry.

yet the potential remains. the ministries with which we are connected are growing, changing, developing in ways exciting to see. but with the growing impossibility of our staying in glasgow, visas contingent on very narrow work requirements, we booked flights to the states for christmas. it would be easy, now, to cut ties, fade away into parenting and plans for the future. we are fighting this urge. we seek to be faithful, consistent in the time we have remaining, a regular presence, as we have always sought to be, spending our time wisely, efficiently, helpfully, in the last projects, meetings, relationships, connections.

and as iona adds to our family, she adds also some new element to our presence here. we connect with our egyptian friends who also have two daughters, the sudanese mothers who have diligently asked about stephanie’s pregnancy progress at each english class, the church community around us, many of whom are building families of their own. this will be the end of another season in which we will attempt to sit comfortably in known surroundings, preparing for new endeavors. and blessed with our newest family member.

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mercury and lightning, part 2.

after months of consistent work – the slow, grinding, fumbling shuffle through heaps of articles, books, interview transcripts, emails, my own abundant, scattered notes – the research finally coalesces into readable paragraphs, arguments, a (hopefully) critical synthesis of scholarly assertions woven with my own research and analysis. and, after rounds of edits, with unassuming normalcy the dissertation is submitted and i complete the requirements for a master’s degree.

school finished, for the next few months we will continue working as we have been, spending time with refugees and asylum seekers in various capacities, from sewing to english classes, football on fridays, meals shared at a kurdish community center. the patient processes: making connections, building relationships. and, though my school practice placement with our church ended with the month of may, i have continued my involvement with the leadership team overseeing the opening of a new community space, which, it was recently decided, will become a church plant. steph and i are considered as part of the core team currently, but our continued presence in glasgow is tenuous at best. it is a project we would love to be a part of, as we love the church from which this plant would grow, their vision and heart for their community. yet, as with many projects full of promise, we tend to be there to build a beginning and then are pulled away. i think of bringing solar power to the kiziba community library, a dream our efforts saw realized mere months before our departure from rwanda.

to what, we wonder now, will we be drawn next? our student visa-allowed time in glasgow winds down, the january cut-off fast approaching, and we ponder the future.

there seems an emptiness here, a void unfilled, though fillable, perhaps. this is not the first time we have felt we were walking blindly towards something new. and so we talk, make unsupportable plans, pray, try to feel some sense of calling to some part of the world, some line of service, some possibility held in the next page of job listings. i look back on the last decade of my life, more, and see one step leading to another, a progression of service, experience, a development. i hope that these steps lead somewhere, that whatever follows builds upon the work God has led us through over these years, particularly the recently completed graduate program. more time, perhaps, is needed, time for prayer, for space to grow between one step and the next.

but time is short, in its way. a month from now we welcome our second child. this month will be one of strange preparations. as we reimagine ourselves post-school, post-glasgow, we also reimagine our family.

so what comes next for the watsons? a child, a departure (most likely) from glasgow, and then…

well, that to say, we’d appreciate your continued prayers. and thank you all for being a part of this journey with us so far.

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land locked blues.

a good friend of ours fled kiziba refugee camp a couple weeks ago, on the move again after fifteen years. we have been messaging through facebook, and that first night, after signing off with him, i thought: having a friend who is a refugee is talking to him on messenger while he and his family have fled a place that should have been safe and are struggling to find food and shelter in a new country and trying to get as much information from him and to him before his phone dies and you don’t know when you will hear from him again. and then you have to go wash the dishes and finish your reading for class.

i have stitched the following together from numerous correspondences with friends in kigali and kiziba, as well as news articles and posts made by protesters themselves on twitter and facebook as the events unfolded.

this past summer, the world food programme (wfp) switched from food rations to cash allowances in kiziba, the camp in which i used to work when we lived in rwanda. the switch worked well, at first. lots of positive changes, lots of new businesses. but in november the cash was cut by ten percent. in december the warning came that it would be cut a further twenty-five percent. many wondered, reasonably, if they could even survive on twenty cents a day.

recently, new integration initiatives were aimed at allowing refugees opportunities for work and citizenship. but to the often nationalistically loyal refugees, frustrated by and distrustful of the rwandan government, such plans made them feel they were being forced to become rwandan citizens, which to most is not desirable.

a few weeks ago the camp leadership said that if their concerns were not addressed by the unhcr they would all walk back to congo. better to die on the way or in that broken country, they said, than starve to death in the camp. no answer came from the unhcr.

and so on tuesday, february 20, a few thousand refugees left kiziba. they were stopped at the top of the ridge outside of the camp by the military and police. despite guns fired in the air to disperse them and a couple people wounded, the refugees continued their two-plus hour march to kibuye and the unhcr offices, where they camped out for two days, speechifying, singing, booing police officers using bullhorns, demanding the unhcr to talk to them. which they did not.

on thursday, allegedly because some refugees were throwing things, the cops and troops opened up to disperse the protests. tear gas first, then bullets. hearing about this, many refugees rushed from kiziba to join them in kibuye, but were stopped by police near the camp. the military denied any use of bullets, while, interestingly enough, acknowledging that some refugees had ‘succumbed’ to their wounds. by the end of the day the military said that five refugees were killed. later the claim was that eight bodies were buried. news outlets are saying eleven now. some refugees are saying twenty-two.

i don’t know how many were actually killed or wounded. but i’m in contact with a handful of kiziba refugees. i know that one of the deceased was a former english student at the library and had participated in our sports programs. and many people are still missing or hiding. and some refugees are combing the camp, trying to put together an accurate total. while things are calmer now, tension remains. the police are investigating.

the violence used does not surprise me, unfortunately. it matches the heavy-handedness rwanda has exerted in other areas, as well as the level of oppression found in the camp. i know we need to be thankful that these camps exist, keeping people alive, and i am, and acknowledge that the unhcr in rwanda is honestly, severely underfunded. but that doesn’t mean we can’t be dissatisfied with the conditions in the camp, or how, after two decades of everyone holding on to an untenable situation, making sustainability impossible, the unhcr and wfp have had to make tough decisions that lead to protests.

and this is why the work of jcm and our friends in the library was always so amazing to me, that refugees in that ‘open prison’, denied rights as citizens, caught in a mire of hopelessness, worked to build a better future. working with them, seeing their dedication, impacted me so much that i’m writing a dissertation on refugee-led community organizations in glasgow. i believe that if the world is ever going to figure out how to deal with refugee situations in ways that don’t create more kizibas or overwhelm countries, then we probably have to start listening to refugees more. and we will probably have to start changing what the terms ‘citizenship’ and ‘nationality’ mean.

in conclusion, i’ve had a terrible couple of weeks. while i have been productive in many ways despite it all, i destroyed my fingernails, and lived several days in a shaky state somewhere between wanting to weep and wanting to puke. all the while frantically refreshing twitter and facebook and messaging everyone i know in kiziba.

this recent message from one of the librarians sums up much:

‘hello my friend how are you now ? but for kiziba now not good. I am alone at library… keep praying for refugies in Rwanda .bye we are hungry and no peace in [kiziba] camp.’

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