Closure: When the timing is right

grace2I remember being curled up one night in my bed in Uganda in 2014, under the protection of my mosquito net, a fan trying its best to keep me cool as it oscillated around my room. I was crying, which wasn’t unusual considering some of the things I had been through during my year as a high school English teacher at an international school in Kampala.

I had but a few months left to go, and I was wrestling with whether or not I should return for a second year. There were so many reasons to leave: I’d been spitting up blood for ten months, the Uganda dust was doing a real number on my sinuses, my administration was shady, I was thousands of miles away from friends and family, hardly any of my friends were coming back, and I’d been fighting a deep depression. But there was one reason to stay: my students.

The battle was fierce, and I was at a loss. So I cried out to God, “You have to tell me! I can’t make this decision on my own!”

readinggroupsThe next day at school it was like God hand-delivered my answer on a silver platter. It was time to go. I simply could not put in another year. This certain situation was handled so poorly that it even gave someone else the final push to not return.

I left Uganda an emotional mess. But there was no time to think about it. I came back to the US, where I was living with my parents because I’d sold nearly everything before leaving for Uganda a year prior. I was unemployed. I was trying to fit back in to a society and friend groups that all seemed so different now. Things were happening quickly, and I had little time to process my year overseas.

All I knew was that I was hurt, and the taste in my mouth for Uganda was a really bitter one.

Eventually, I began to see things more clearly. Through prayer and reflection, I began to see the part I played in some of my hurts from Uganda. And while that helped to ease a bit of my resentment, it didn’t completely erase it.

kidsThat part came in the past few weeks. My dad and I went on a mission trip to Uganda. My prayer was that God would give me the closure I needed. I didn’t know what He’d do, but I knew He could and He WOULD do it.

Over two weeks, I rediscovered Uganda and why I wanted to serve there in the first place. I fell in love with a country that deserves endless love. I was reminded of the Ugandan people, who are so loving and welcoming. I even met up with a former student who used to be an atheist. He’s accepted Christ and is now a light for God. He thanked me for the part I played in his dedication to the Lord, even though it was years before he accepted Christ.

It had been five years since I arrived in Uganda for an emotional and life-changing year. God knew that a return any sooner than this wouldn’t have been beneficial. I needed to grow, forgive other people, and forgive myself.

We tend to want closure immediately and on our terms. But God has His reasons for not giving it to us immediately. Like all things, God’s timing is best. The day I left Kampala in 2014 in complete shambles, He knew I’d be back in four years. He knew that’s when He’d help me heal my wounds.

If there’s an area of your life that you’re waiting for some closure on, don’t give up hope. Keep praying, and trust that God will give you the closure you need at just the right time. 

When I look back at Uganda now, I smile. I see the good. God took a hurtful and tough area of my life and made it special again.

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.
The old has gone, the new is here.”
2 Corinthians 5:17

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A letter to my dad before we go to Africa

Dear Dad,

In two days we will embark on our greatest adventure yet- traveling overseas to Uganda, where I spent a year of my life just five years ago. I know my passion for Africa has somewhat perplexed you over the years, but it has never stopped you from supporting me. That means the world to me.

IMG-9963 (1)I wonder if you remember that we took our very first mission trip together. You, mom, and I went with our church to Gamerco, New Mexico for a week the summer before my 8th grade year. We did Vacation Bible School for the many beautiful children at the Gamerco Church of God. As you know, that trip impacted me so much so that later in life I went on mission trips to Niger, Nicaragua, Zambia, Thailand, and of course, the year I spent in Uganda.

You have traveled many places: a trip to Alaska, and all around Europe and the Caribbean multiple times. But this trip is very different. It will be unlike anything you have ever experienced.

I know you’ve seen some beautiful things around the world. This will be quite a different beauty. There’s a reason they call Uganda the “Pearl of Africa.” Yes, we’ll arrive in Kampala at night, and you’ll wake up to a bustling city and wonder what I’m talking about. But once we get out of the city, you’ll see what I mean. There is so much natural beauty in Uganda.

When we get to the village where we will be serving, you’re going to want to “fix” things. Remember that you’re in a culture vastly different from your own. Trust the people who serve there every single day. They know best how to serve the people.

fathersday2018Finally, I hope you will be open-minded. The fact that you’re even going on this trip shows your willingness to experience another culture. You know that the world is so much bigger than just Fort Wayne, Indiana, and even the United States.

Thank you for doing this, Dad. God continues to bless our family in wonderful ways. It is so exciting to share His love in Uganda, and you won’t ever forget this adventure. I love you, Dad!

Your daughter,
Natalie

A walk through the Red Light District

They all looked so happy. Wearing next to nothing, young Asian women lined up in front of the bars in one of Thailand’s famed Red Light Districts, Soi Cowboy.

They appeared to be having a blast. Their makeup was perfect, their hair smooth and straight. I can’t comment on their outfits because they really didn’t have much on. It was clear, to the average person passing through, that these ladies were more than happy to “service” any man who paid the right price.

SOURCE: www.pilgrimwithapassport.blogspot.com
SOURCE: http://www.pilgrimwithapassport.blogspot.com

After all, their smiles were so big. They literally called out to passing men, “You come see me!” they yelled. “I make you happy,” others screamed. They were begging for business, and hoards of Western men were happy to oblige.

One outside table caught my eye. Under the glow of a neon sign, there were four white men having drinks, and each of them had two Asian women at their disposal. The women were rubbing their arms, laughing, giving these guys all the attention they could possibly desire. I rolled my eyes and wondered how great it really made those guys feel to know they were only getting that attention because they were paying for it.

The music was bumping in each bar we passed and the flashing lights that spilled out of the doorways was sometimes blinding. We passed a woman holding a sign that read, “The Doll House- Maybe 20 gorgeous girls, plus a lot of ugly girls, and a few fat ones!”

So what was I, a 34-year-old Christian from Fort Wayne, Ind., doing in a Thai Red Light District? I was on a mission trip.

Our group had spent the week learning about Destiny Rescue, an organization that rescues girls from sex trafficking. And let me tell you one of the most important things we learned from the staff who work with rescued girls: they do NOT want to be there selling their bodies. I repeat, they do NOT want to be there.

The smiles are fake. The begging is fake. The pleading is fake. The excitement they get when a man pays for sexual favors is fake.

The girls are some seriously talented actresses. And why wouldn’t they be? If they don’t smile, if they don’t beg, if they don’t perform, they pay a penalty. Their mamasan will beat them. Once that happens enough times, the girl gives up. She becomes the greatest actress ever- pretending to be happy in a never-ending hell. Some girls then turn to the only things that will make work easier- drugs and alcohol.

Before we made our quick walk through Soi Cowboy, we were told to keep an eye out for girls who weren’t out front begging for customers. Look for the girls who don’t see people coming, and take note of what you see.

SOURCE: www.barspics.com
SOURCE: http://www.barspics.com

I saw a few of those girls. They sat back, almost as if they were on break. They weren’t smiling. Their eyes were eyes filled with pain and fear. For most of them, their eyes were just empty.

But aside from the women we saw on Soi Cowboy, aside from those calling out to men because they had to, aside from the girls in the shadows who were empty, there lies a part of Soi Cowby and other red light districts that you don’t see: trafficked children.

Children. When I was in Thailand, I met young girls who had been trafficked. Sold. Raped. Demoralized. So even if you don’t believe me that the girls on the streets hate what they do, you can’t ignore the fact that these same places have children for sale.

Children. For. Sale.

On our brief walk, there was one specific girl out front who caught my eye. We made eye contact, but she didn’t smile like the other girls in the street. She looked like she was holding back tears. I wondered, was this her first night? Would she suffer the consequences of not calling out to men? How horrified was she of what would happen to her that night, whether it was being raped or beaten?

In that instant, everything became real.

The stories I read about trafficking.

The accounts we were told from those who rescue girls.

The documentaries I watched.

It all became real in that moment. I was surrounded by a sea of trafficked girls and there was literally nothing I could do in that moment to fix any of it.

My trip to Thailand to learn about Destiny Rescue was a powerful one. I got to experience their rescue and prevention homes, as well as see how their programs really do rehabilitate girls and prepare them for a normal life outside of trafficking. What I didn’t realize, though, was that the walk through a red light district on the final night of our trip would bring everything together for me. It was like it all clicked.

Our walk was quick, less than 10 minutes. We got back in the van to head to the hotel, and I put my head down and cried. Trafficking is real. These girls, these children, are real. Their stories are real. And we can’t sit back and let it continue to happen.

“And the King will say, “I tell you the truth,
when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,
you were doing it to me!””

Matthew 25:40

Behind the smiles: dinner with the trafficked

20150906_062416It was finally time to meet “the girls.” We had arrived in Thailand the day before, and we were eagerly awaiting the moment when we would actually get to spend time with the dozen or so teens who had been rescued from sex trafficking in the Chiang Mai area. We were taking them to their favorite restaurant- a place we knew nothing about other than fact that they rarely got to go and that they loved going.

A truck jam-packed with beautiful teen girls (and one 11-year-old) pulled up next to us in the parking lot.

“Sorry we’re late,” the driver said. “They were busy getting all dressed up. This is a pretty big occasion for them!”

Our group of 12 from Fort Wayne, Ind. began to file out of our truck as the girls got out of theirs. Some were in jeans, others in dresses and skirts. Their makeup and hair were done. They giggled and spoke to each other in Thai, occasionally giving us shy smiles.

“The girls will help you figure out how this works,” one of their group leaders told us. “They are so excited, you have no idea.”

It didn’t occur to me that we would need to be taught how dinner would “work,” but we certainly did. As we all entered the open-aired restaurant to sit down, the girls were instructed to spread out so we could get to know them, which would be a task in itself considering what little English they spoke. And we spoke no Thai at all.

The girls wasted no time in rushing up to the buffet, which was unlike any buffet we had ever seen. It was table after table of raw meat, and not just any raw meat, but raw meat without any sort of label. I stood at the tables of raw meat and just kind of stared at them not knowing what to do.

“How do we know what the meat is?” one of my fellow team members asked.

I gazed at the piles and piles of raw meat. I could pick out the chicken and beef, but aside from that, it was next to impossible.

“Maybe we just guess?” I responded, as the girls from my table loaded up on raw meats of all kinds. I found a pile of imitation crab and decided that would be safe.

When I returned to the table, the girls were in full cooking mode. There was a hole in the center of the table with a hot cooking device inside, surrounded by water. The girls began to grill, boil and cook all sorts of meat and vegetables. They were giggling as they fought for space on the heated device.

I learned their names and ages, and couldn’t get past their giggling and their smiles. I wondered, How long have those smiles been there? How long have they been genuine smiles?

You see, all of the girls we were there to see were once slaves of the worst kind- forced to perform sexual acts on men multiple times a day. The darling girl across from me was only 11 years old. What had she been through? The gorgeous 19-year-old who sat next to me, how long had she been living in hell before she was rescued?

I didn’t know the answers to those questions. As a matter of fact, they quickly left my mind because the girls were so happy. Something as simple as dinner with strangers had made them so happy. And because of that, I was happy.

The girl next to me, who we will call “A”, began to put some of her cooked food on my plate. “For you,” she said. I didn’t know what it was, but who was I to turn it down? It was a sweet gesture, and she went on to take care of me the rest of the evening, cooking meat and veggies and sharing with me, a complete stranger.

20150906_072151bAfter dinner, the girls pulled out their cell phones and began to take photos with us. We took a group photo at one point, and “A” snuggled up next to me, putting her head on my shoulder. I immediately remembered a story one of the rescue men had told us.

One of the nights he went into a bar undercover for a potential rescue, there was a girl who sat down next to him and put her head on his shoulder. He knew why she did this. It was because she had to. If she didn’t, there would be a price to pay. It made me wonder if “A” had ever put her head on someone’s shoulder simply because if she didn’t, she would have been beaten.

But all that was in the past now. Thanks to an organization called Destiny Rescue, “A” didn’t have to put her head on anyone’s shoulder unless she wanted to. She was free. “A” had found freedom in Christ, and her life was different now.

I’ll never forget the dinner we shared with the girls in Chiang Mai. Although we couldn’t communicate about much other than our favorite colors and what our names were, we still made connections. And while the men who purchased and raped them in their past saw smiles that were fake, we got to experience smiles that were real.

“In this world, you will have trouble.
But, take heart. I have overcome the world!”
John 16:33

Cold cuts, Subway Jared, and how my mission trip just got real

Dear Subway executives,

You knew. I could have still supported your restaurant chain after Jared Fogle’s sick actions were exposed, but then we find out that you knew, and did nothing. I have never felt strongly enough about the actions of a company to completely boycott a business, until now. Subway, I am done with you and your cold cuts.

In five days I leave for Thailand, where I will meet dozens and dozens of girls, children, who were trafficked and forced to have sex with men multiple times a day, but have since been rescued. Who knows, maybe some of the exact girls I’ll meet will have met your Subway spokesperson, the guy you knew had a sexual interest in young children.

“Sex with prostitutes between the ages of 9 and 16 years old in Thailand,” the USA Today article reads. I cried when I read it, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

You are the problem, Subway. You are the company that looked the other way when your own spokesperson was forcing himself on young girls in Thailand. Young girls who were stolen from their own families to then be forced to pleasure sick men, like Jared Fogle, for fear that they would lose their lives if they didn’t.

You are just as bad as Fogle. And you have supported an international group of sex traffickers who exploit children. I wonder if you have daughters. Child trafficking is on the rise in America. Who is to say your own daughters won’t be kidnapped and trafficked? What do you have to say about the American businessmen who would force her to have sex with them? Somehow I doubt you would just look the other way like it wasn’t happening.

These girls are real. Maybe it’s hard for you to see that because they aren’t American, or they aren’t white, but they are real girls. Maybe you are grossly misinformed and under the impression that the girls want to be prostitutes, but ages 9 to 16? Get real.

You knew. You have become a part of the sex trafficking system. You have had a part in destroying the lives of children. You have supported their “owners” monetarily, and thus continued the dirty cycle. This is why it continues, because people like you knew and did nothing about it.

I’ve never felt strongly enough about a company to boycott their restaurant because of corporate’s belief system (or lack of one). But this, this is too much. And unless those of you who knew about Fogle’s escapades are given the boot, I will not be eating at Subway. I know it’s not the workers’ faults, but I just can’t bring myself to give another dime to your organization.

I never imagined that “Subway Jared” would be at the forefront of my mind during my time in Thailand, but I have a feeling that he will be. And I have a suspicion that God will use it for something good. You will not win this battle, Subway executives. God will.

And while you, and Jared Fogle, and all the money you’ve made on those cold cuts have been used to destroy the lives of innocent children, I’ll get to experience the restoration of their lives thanks to Destiny Rescue. If you do anything to even attempt to make this right, you should be pouring thousands to millions of dollars into organizations like Destiny Rescue, organizations that rescue children from evil men like you.

May God have mercy on your souls. And may the rest of us someday forgive you for what you’ve done. Until then, next week I’ll be looking into the faces of girls like the ones you have tried to destroy. And although your actions are evil and inexcusable, you will not win.

Sincerely,
Natalie

A growing and changing heart

Since I was a little girl, Africa always pulled at my heartstrings. It was like God made me with this insatiable hunger for loving the people of Africa. Trips to Niger and Zambia didn’t completely satisfy it. Even living in Uganda for a year didn’t satisfy it. I believe it will always be there. I’ll never “get over” my love for Africa.

But sometimes God does strange things to our hearts. Sometimes He can even make them bigger. It’s not that my heart for Africa has lessened, but it’s grown bigger to allow for new passions. Via my time in Uganda and my current position at a nonprofit here in Fort Wayne, God has opened my heart to Asia.

I have met a few missionaries who serve the Lord in Asia. I always admired their work, but time and time again I would say, “But that’s definitely not a place for me. I just don’t have the heart for it. My heart is in Africa.”

Cassie was one of my students from Singapore. Getting to know her and her family really opened my heart to a new culture.
Cassie was one of my students from Singapore. Getting to know her and her family really opened my heart to a new culture.

Oddly enough, my heart really grew for Asia during my time in Uganda. While I taught at an international school there, some of my students were from places like South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines. I grew to love these students and their families. My heart began to grow for a whole new world of people.

I never imagined that I would feel led to go on a mission trip to anywhere in Asia, but God opened a door for me to do so. My church partners with Destiny Rescue to rescue girls from child trafficking and is taking a trip to Thailand in September.

Let me be clear: I have NEVER had a desire to even visit anywhere in Asia. As I tell people about my upcoming mission trip to Thailand, everyone seems to say, “I have always wanted to go to Thailand!” Well, I haven’t. For me, this is not about some life-long dream to go to Thailand, but about something different.

I went back and forth with whether or not I felt God wanted me to go. At first I looked into the trip out of curiosity, but decided that it was just too expensive. So many people have supported my other trips over the years that I couldn’t possibly ask for more support. I’m also still paying off medical bills from last year.

Then one Sunday afternoon, someone from the church called to talk about it. She explained that it was a good, young group going. She also said many of the people have never traveled internationally, and that given my experience abroad, I could be a big help to them. I said I would think about it, pray about it more, and let her know.

World Refugee Day also helped open my heart to the people of Southeast Asia.
World Refugee Day also helped open my heart to the people of Southeast Asia.

That same week at work I attended the “World Refugee Day” celebration in town. Fort Wayne has the largest number of Burmese refugees in the country. We celebrated with them, tried their food, listened to their stories, watched their dances, and embraced their culture and others of Southeast Asia. This was when my heart grew even bigger for an entire new group of people.

Because my heart was growing, I decided to look into volunteering with our refugees from Burma. I am meeting with someone from the Reclamation Project next week to see where I can volunteer with them.

It didn’t take long for me to look back and realize that God was opening doors I was trying to shut, including the doors to my heart. I decided to be open to what God was doing, and agreed to go on the trip with my church.

One person said to me recently, “I thought Africa was your thing?” But the truth is, I’ve also taken a mission trip to Nicaragua, where my sponsor child lives. I also volunteer here in town twice a week at the homeless shelter. Africa isn’t my “thing.” Nicaragua isn’t my “thing.” The homeless in America aren’t my “thing.”

PEOPLE are my “thing,” because Jesus is my “thing.” There’s just no other way to explain it.

My heart is growing and changing. I’m eager to see what God does with that, and I believe this trip to Thailand is a part of God’s plan for my heart.

Learn more about my upcoming mission trip to Thailand here.

Sometimes your presence is enough

11233499_10152855702181573_1337504488390336071_nPhillip was in his late 20’s and dying of AIDS. His family had disowned him, and day after day he was in his bed, waiting to die. Sister Judith, one of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, helped take care of Phillip. She would change his bed sheets, clean his room and do his dishes.

Sister Judith was a hard worker. She was diligently washing Phillip’s dishes one day when he called out to her.

“Sister Judith!” he yelled from his bedroom. “Come in here!”

“I’m doing your dishes,” she replied. “Need to get this done.”

“I said, come in here,” Phillip shouted back.

Sister Judith went in Phillip’s room to see what he wanted. He pointed at an empty chair beside his bed.

“See that chair?” he said. “Sit in it.”

It was a lesson Sister Judith said she would never forget. She had been running around trying to “help” so much that she missed the importance of simply being there for Phillip, being someone to sit with, someone to talk to, someone to form a relationship with.

Sometimes, your presence is enough. Sure, there are things you can do to help people, but often what helps the most is just being there.

In September I’m going to Thailand with my church and Destiny Rescue. It is not technically a “work trip.” We aren’t building anything or painting any walls, we are simply going to visit. We are going to build relationships with the girls who have been rescued from child trafficking and sexual exploitation.

What does it really matter? Will our presence in Thailand at these rescue homes really make any sort of a difference? I can say with all sincerity and confidence that I know it will. I’ve seen it happen before.

IMG_3287 (2)When I was in Zambia with Lifesong for Orphans, I remember talking with some precious third graders. One said to me, “Why are you here?” I told her we were there to visit, to get to know them and to talk about Jesus with them. She then asked, “How much do you get paid?” My heart broke.

Once I explained to her that those of us who were there were using our vacation days from work to visit, she was absolutely dumbfounded. She couldn’t believe that we were there for them, and even more so, that we had to pay and raise the funds to get there.

“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth
for a sincere brotherly love,
love one another earnestly from a pure heart.”
1 Peter 1:22

216059_10150151389976573_735678_nWhen I went to Nicaragua with my church and Food for the Hungry, part of our mission in the village of Terrencio was to dig latrines. While I know it needed to be done, no one seemed overjoyed at what we were doing, but they were more than thrilled when we spent time with them. Our sponsor children and their families were elated when we came to their homes just to chat.

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil;
hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with brotherly affection,
and take delight in honoring each other.”
Romans 12:9-10

One afternoon in Uganda, my friend Debby and I went to visit the father and stepmother of her sponsor child. Their mud home was as clean as a mud home could be, with furniture covered in white sheets, just for us. They even gave us cold bottles of Coke. Rude to refuse their kind gesture, we indulged, and spent the next few hours enjoying our time together. Their hospitality told us what didn’t have to be said.

“You came to see ME,” is what it said. In Zambia. In Nicaragua. In Uganda. “Someone from the other side of the world came just to spend time with me in the name of Jesus.”cross

I find it funny that people assume mission trips have to be filled with doing construction projects. Which is fine, but wasn’t Jesus the ultimate missionary, and what did He do? He spent time with people.

Even after Jesus came back from the dead, He spent time with people. He didn’t dig any latrines or paint any walls. Check out Luke 24:13-39. After the resurrection, Jesus walks a dirt road with two of His followers as a simple, loving gesture.

At first I felt strange asking for financial support as I embarked on this journey to Thailand, but the more I thought about it, I realized it’s just as important as any other mission trip I have gone on. Looking at what these girls have been through and simply being there to love them might actually be even more important than any mission trip I’ve already been on.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20

Learn more about my upcoming trip to Thailand with Destiny Rescue here.