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A Taste of the Philippines 

January 14, 2016

A little bit of the local flavor here…


Rice, fish, mango, watermellon, okra, etc.


Enjoying a local “orange.”


Orange on the inside.



Grace Embodied

January 14, 2016

Rex is quickly becoming one of my favorite people. He and I are the same age, but the energy he gives night and day with these children is astounding. During a short break from scavenger hunts and Bible stories, Rex shares a bit of his own story. 

He’s the ninth out of twelve children in the family, and he was born into extreme poverty just like all the kids that surrounded us now. As a child he spent his time collecting garbage to sell to help support his family. When he was three years old KKFI offered to help out the family, but his parents initially refused. Once his mother continued to struggle with feeding all twelve kids, they accepted the offer and Rex’s world began to change. 

Rex benefitted from all that KKFI had to offer including the slippers (flip-flops) from “Soles for Souls”, transportation to and from school, an education geared toward his stage of development, and meals to help him gain strength and stay focused in class. 

Now whenever he meets new people he asks, “Are you a Methodist?” because he is so grateful for all the UMC has done through KKFI by giving him a shot at a future. 

For any child coming into the program there is only one condition: stop selling stuff on the street. This rule is meant to protect them from the temptation and dangers of falling into trafficking, a world from which they may never return. If they are caught continuing to sell, their parents will be informed, but no punishable action takes place. There is a slight threat to discontinue their education and feeding program, but Rex would never actually follow through because he believes in giving these kids every chance they can get. He is the ultimate example of grace embodied in human form and his heart for these kids grows bigger every day. 

I teased Rex one day when he mentioned needing some caffeine. “Aha!” I said. “So that’s where all your energy comes from.” He quickly corrected me. “No, the energy with the children is all natural because I see myself in them. I need to stay excited and keep them motivated so they’ll want to give back too.”


The Balm in Gilead

January 13, 2016

The Gilead Center began with a few people going out into the community; and they addressed the children with a simple question: “Do you want us to teach you how to dream?”

From there they began to offer transportation, high protein meals, and an education where they learned such stories as Joseph the dreamer and his many colored coat. Over time, the dream center became a technical college, and the Gilead Center was born.

Every time I hear the name I can’t help but sing in my head…”There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to soothe the sin sick soul. Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole…”

Over the weekend we saw that balm wash over all of the children who came to play games with us. Massive sweeping mango trees shaded most of the rural camp, providing relief from the heat and opportunities for tree climbing. The children ranged from ages 10 to 15, but their malnourished bodies looked several years delayed. Rex apologized to our group that they may be a little shy since they weren’t used to seeing adults outside of their families, and for many of them this was their first night away from home. 

We were informed these children came from severely impoverished neighborhoods and without the scholarship program they hardly stand a chance. One group lives near a concrete bridge, with their homes carved out in pits below. When the rainy season arrives and typhoons hit the neighborhood, their homes flood and they ascend the walls to take refuge on top of the bridge, until the water recedes. The other group lives in a perimeter surrounding an endless dumpsite in tiny huts constructed from scraps of materials they find. They spend their time scavenging through trash to find any salvageable goods to sell. 

As the college students, adults and children began to interact, it was easy to see their anxiety melt away. The children had a chance to behave as children should, laughing and playing and giggling as secrets were whispered behind tiny hands amongst friends. We taught them Bible stories and silly songs, ran relay races and elaborate games of tag. We helped with their English and they attempted to teach us Tagalog. We ate together, three meals a day and two snacks, packed with protein and good nutrients to nourish those starving bodies. 

Before the evening program was even finished, the kids went off on their own to gather their pajamas and head to the showers. Twenty five of them all piled into two tents pitched under the mango trees and there wasn’t a single one who seemed to mind the close quarters or sleeping on the ground with nothing but a pillow. I was amazed at these kids voluntarily bathing without any prompting, knowing what a chore it is for most American kids back home, especially when it means cutting playtime short. We mentioned to Rex that there were still games and a bonfire on the schedule and worried the children would get all sweaty again, but he responded with ease, “Let them enjoy their pajamas. They don’t get to wear them very often.” 

That statement was enough to remind us that these aren’t ordinary kids. They have probably matured more in their ten years on earth than we have our whole lives. They have made decisions we couldn’t comprehend and seen horrors too tragic to even haunt our nightmares. Too many of them have been subject to human trafficking or are in danger of becoming the next victim. Their only hope lies in someone giving a damn enough to recognize their value and offer them a chance to finish their education. 

KKFI is giving them the tools they need to dare to dream. It makes me proud of the United Methodist Church for supporting ministries that have the power to totally transform lives and have a positive impact on an overwhelming concern. I can’t help but wonder why I was born into such privilege and opportunity when these kids are born into hell on earth. The real challenge comes now that I have all this knowledge in deciding how to respond. What can I do that will ever feel like enough?

But for the moment, I take comfort in knowing that even momentarily, these children spent a weekend putting their cares aside as they slept in a pile, full bellies and clean bodies, worn out from a day of running and singing and playing, and enjoying everything childhood is supposed to contain. Sometimes the balm in Gilead looks like a couple of tents housing dozens of tired kids under the sweet scent of the sweeping mango trees, and it does indeed soothe the soul.


KKFI 101

January 12, 2016


Mural at the Gilead Center

Upon arriving at the Gilead Center we received a quick version of KKFI 101. KKFI (Kapatiran-Kaunlaran Foundation Inc.) is the United Methodist run organization that is working to educate children and equip them to climb out of poverty. It’s been around for 66 years and is still looking to expand their programs to include things like housing for retired pastors. That’s right…after dedicating their lives to the church and serving God and others, these pastors can’t even afford a home in retirement. 

KKFI’s basic structure consists of teaching people to acquire:

1. Formal Education

2. Alternative Delivery Modes of Education (When kids get disengaged and drop out at a young age, it takes creativity to pull them back in. Examples we’ve seen this week include teaching under a mango tree or holding life skills classes on a basketball court.)

3. Soft skills-value, culture, spirituality 

4. Life skills

5. Job skills

They also provide a lot of LOVE…learning opportunities through volunteer engagement. 

That’s where we come in. Our group consists of 14 LaGrange College students, one Biology professor, one Religion professor, two UMC pastors (myself included), and a lay member. Together with the KKFI staff we’re teaming up to explore several of the programs that help provide food, transportation, education, slippers (flip-flops), dignity, hope, transformation, and most importantly…dreams. 


Halfway Around the World

January 11, 2016

We arrived at the ATL airport on Thursday at 9:00 am. We settled at KKFI in Manila, Philippines around 2:00 am Saturday morning. Since we’re 13 hours ahead, for the next two weeks our night and day would be turned upside down. Tired does not begin to cover it. Fortunately we got about a four hour nap before grabbing some breakfast and making our way toward the Gilead Center. Another hour in the van and we left the city for a quieter rural area where we would spend the weekend running a camp (think 24 hours of VBS) for a group of 10-15 year olds. 


Bill, Dave, and me enjoying a refreshing coconut drink!

Dave Allen Grady, another pastor from the North Georgia Conference, shared a story of a conversation he had with one of the boys. It was early evening and jet lag was starting to hit us hard. During perhaps our eighteenth game the boy asked, “Why are you sitting down?” Dave replied, “Because I had to travel a very long time to get halfway around the world to come hang out with you, and I’m very tired.” The boy looked at Dave with a smile and said, “I think I like that.” 

When you say you’re going on a mission trip everyone always asks: “What are you going to do?” They want to know what you’re going to build, what you’re going to teach, how you’re sharing God with those you’re going to see. 

There aren’t always easy answers before a trip begins. But it often turns out that no matter what place you visit or which organization is running the show, mission trips are about so much more. It never fails to be incredibly meaningful to the locals when a group travels long and far to come hang out with them. It makes them feel valued and loved. It reminds them of their importance in this world. It helps reinforce that though it may feel like it, they are never forgotten. 

Perhaps our answers should be: “We’re going to build relationships. We’re going to learn from them. We’re going to rediscover God through their eyes and their stories that they share with us.”

Life is good when there’s a mango tree to climb.

Journey to the Philippines 

January 10, 2016

It all started with a funeral. Several months ago I attended the service of a friend. We were colleagues in ministry together, but also had corralled campers together at Glisson and majored in religion together at LaGrange. It was one of those moments when you realize people your age are dying and life becomes surreal.

After the service several other LaGrange religion majors from our ’03-’04 classes were gathering to make small talk, when Dr. David Ahearn, one of our professors, said, “We should get together and catch up.” We all nodded in agreement and talked about how that would be great. Then David said again, “No I mean it, we actually should,” as he pulled out his calendar and started talking dates.

About two months later eight of us ate at Twains and caught up on life. Of the seven religion majors there, five of us are pastors, one is a social worker, and one a religion teacher. Four of us became foster parents through the United Methodist Children’s Home. And twelve years after graduating all of us were still pretty well connected. If that doesn’t speak for the quality of education and overall experience we had at LaGrange, I don’t know what does. I cannot praise the religion department highly enough for what it stirred up in me so long ago.

David began sharing tales of how student life had changed, and how his life had changed as he conquered a brain tumor and the medication caused him to reverse age (giving him the mind of a 20-year-old), and how he trekked through Nepal to climb Annapurna. He was quickly giving that Dos Equis guy competition for The Most Interesting Man in the World. Then he started talking about the Philippines.

When you fall in love with a place or a group of people or a project that just gives you life, it shows in your every action. David spoke of the Philippines and the relationships he had built there and the work the United Methodist Church was doing with such conviction and passion, it was contagious. He takes an annual J-term class to the Philippines to explore culture and engage in the community. It falls under a Service and Sustainability curriculum but it was obvious from his enthusiasm it was actually so much more. He spoke of the people as the most hospitable and friendly people he had ever met. He shared some of the projects that were transforming lives in the slums of Manila and beyond. The Philippines also happen to be one of the mission bridges for the North Georgia Annual Conference and the UMC has a huge impact in the community. There are also several churches there looking for sister church partnerships to be able to do more in their communities than they are financially able.

That was enough for me when David said, “You just have to experience it for yourself but I know you’d fall in love with them.” I told him, “I’m in.” He continued trying to sell it with, “You really should think about it. It would be great to have some of you come along.” I said again, “No I mean it. I’m in.”


David listens carefully as Rex shares his story.

Fast forward to January, and here I am in Manila. We’re only a few days into the experience, but already I have seen the incredible transformative work that the UMC is doing through KKFI and the Gilead Center. I met Rex, who benefitted from scholarship programs as a child that gave him food, an education and allowed him to climb out of poverty. This weekend he led a camp for 25 kids who are now part of the same scholarship program, and he is giving them hope with his endless energy, enthusiasm, and constant love. I thought I had seen poverty in India, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but nothing compares to what we saw yesterday as we took those kids back to their homes. It’s still taking time to process and I have a lot more questions than answers, but I am grateful for the series of events that led me down this path and brought me to this moment in time. The possibilities of where this journey will lead are endless.

LaGrange College, KKFI Staff, and all the kids from the community.

When Loving Hurts

November 21, 2015

IMG_0629On Wednesday I walked into court carrying my beautiful, rambunctious, amazing little boy. A few hours later I walked out with empty arms. I did everything in my power to fight for him, to make his voice heard. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough. The court decided, and I believe they chose wrong.

In the midst of this excruciating heartbreak, I am grateful for the chance to have loved him so deeply. I am grateful for the unconditional love and forgiveness he so often gave me. He taught me so much about patience, trust, hope, and love that will forever change me.

There are so many times I look at our broken and hurting world and wish there was some way I could help when praying alone doesn’t feel like enough. Fostering is one way I have found to attempt to make a difference. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s exhausting. Yes, there are days it feels like no matter what I do it’s still not enough; it still doesn’t make a difference. But I have to have faith, and when I can’t seem to find that faith, I have to trust others who say they have faith in me. Despite all the brokenness in the system, I believe working to make a difference from the inside is far more powerful than walking away and critiquing it.

“Do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

It would be easy to hate. It would be easy to blame. Instead, I have to look for hope and trust that handing this little one over to God’s care is enough to keep him safe.

I will remember the way he couldn’t get close enough to me and used to smush his little face against mine, forehead to forehead, looking me right in the eyes, demanding that I see him. I will remember that mischievous look on his face when he wanted to do something he knew he shouldn’t and he hoped his cuteness would keep him out of trouble when he did it anyway. I will remember the elation and pride I felt the first time he strung four words together in a sentence I understood with perfect clarity. I will remember the way he forgave me over and over again, offering me a hug after I lost my patience and screamed at him and crumpled to the floor in defeat. I will remember the way I laughed at something he didn’t understand, but he started laughing too, which made me laugh even harder. I will remember all the times he said, “I want you,” and could only be consoled as I bent my arm backwards while driving to reach him in his carseat and hold his tiny hand. I will remember all the times he said, “I yuv you,” and called me mama or mommy or “my Julie.” I will remember just how much my heart hurts to lose him, which reflects the depth of love I have for him, and always will. I will remember all of these moments and emotions, and hope that somewhere deep down in his heart, he will remember too.