What Legos and the Virginia Reel have to do with Justice

Last week we concluded our fifth summer of justice-related book clubs for kids and moms. Each summer I have met new people, discovered a new author, strengthened ties with the larger, global justice community, and been witness to God’s work in the world and in our family.

Last year I shared how I came to start leading book clubs for moms and kids around the topic of justice. This time, I want to process how I see the book club facilitates developing a heart and mind for justice in a child and a family.

~ A circle of moms, daughters, and sons: When we gather at a local park on summer mornings for book club, we form a large circle-ish shape. The moms sit on blankets with their littles and bigs huddled next to them or on laps. I love seeing all their faces – most of whom I know well. Some are friends of friends. Some of their children I already know and love, and all are loved intimately by God.

I heard an interview with Atinuke, an author of books we read last year. She said that her name means: You were loved before you were born. This is what I know about each child and mother in that circle: You were loved before you were born.

We gather together around a common purpose and each of us approaches the learning and activities differently. Each mom brings her own experiences and talents, each child brings her and his own readiness, attention span, and personality. We form connections with each other and to the larger world around us. Seeds are planted and watered in moms and kids, and the One who loved us before we were born will grow those seeds in time.


~ Books: Together, we read a book throughout the summer, one that was carefully chosen to stimulate our heads and our hearts. Our “head and heart” books have been vehicles for discovering different places, cultures, and perspectives that a child growing up in the sheltered environment most of us live in needs opportunities to explore.

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Justice Heroes: Each time we gather, we learn about a real justice hero – men, women, and children who have stood for justice and acted with courage and compassion in their time and place. These are people who were not bystanders, but acted in the face of injustice, and we are inspired to do the same.

~ Action: Sometimes we read, talk, and listen, and our heads and hearts get smarter, but then we keep that smartness to ourselves and never do anything with it. At book club, we encourage the kids to do something. So, they become abolitionists. They use their words and actions to raise awareness about modern day slavery, and support International Justice Mission, a global organization that protects the poor from violence in the developing world.

They write thank-you notes to encourage the rescuers, office workers, survivors, care providers, and investigators on IJM’s Ghana Team. They are encouraged think creatively about acting justly now as children and as grownups.

IJM letter

Together as families, we challenged ourselves to read 1,000 books and raise $1,000 for IJM by September! As of this week, we are very close to meeting our goal.

Counting books

~ What Legos and Dancing have to do with Justice: Engaged brains and happy hearts facilitate learning. But a lot of the content related to global justice issues is complicated and sad or frightening.

So we play with legos, or more accurately, use legos to teach about justice.


Telling the story of IJM’s casework on Lake Volta using Legos

We dance. I am so grateful to have a friend to whom I can say, “Hey, you know that one part in “The Year of Miss Agnes” where the village has a dance? Do you think you could teach our book club girls “The Virginia Reel?” I wish you could have heard the peels of laughter in the park that morning (scroll down to hear a sample).

~ Widening the Circle: We teach our children that being an abolitionist means speaking up on behalf of those who are oppressed. So the kids sent letters to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. They answered questions and tried to speak up when a grownup asked them about the book club. They tell about slavery in Ghana and what our book club is trying to do about it.

And the circle widens. Five-year-old Genevieve’s grandfather in California received a letter from his granddaughter and shared it with his co-workers at an auto shop, who were encouraged by the little girl’s initiative and responded with a donation to IJM.


Ripples of relationships from each book club family grow ever wider, and more come to know about modern day slavery through the words and actions of small children.

Together, we grasp the outstretched arm of God who hears the cries of the brokenhearted and uses his children to bind their wounds and set captives free.

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We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance,
And the larger circle of all creatures,
Passing in and out of life,
Who move also in a dance,
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments.
(The Larger Circle by Wendell Berry)

Thanks, Katie Jenks and Shawna Demaray for the photos and video!


Thank you, Mrs. Maxey

Two years ago, I sat on some bleachers in my daughter’s elementary school gym. Her kindergarten class was performing their end-of-year “Hoedown”.  It was the cutest, most hilarious, tears-streaming-down cheeks, darling school performance I have ever seen. And there was my girl’s teacher, twirling and swaying, mouthing words, directing movements, with 22 pairs of eyes fixed on her as they do-si-doed and kazooed around the gym.

Fast forward a year and my son is on the cusp of starting kindergarten at the same school, with the same teacher. I remember having a few weeks of panicky doubt – should we have had a third baby? Just like that, and Jack will be dancing at his Hoedown and that sweet, silly, wonderful five-year-old world of kindergarten will be gone. He hadn’t even had a first day in Mrs. Maxey’s class and I was already mourning saying goodbye to her.

Well, that day came, folks. Jack sauntered in the gym with his kindergarten friends, waving his hat, swingin’ his partner, warming his hands by the “campfire” and singing, “Come a ti yi yippee yippee yay”.

Kindergarten is oh, so sweet.

We have lots of friends who homeschool their children, and there are many moments that I consider the advantages of keeping my kids close at home and giving them a very individualized, very purposeful education. But our family has prayerfully and intentionally chosen to have our kids attend our neighborhood public school. How thankful I was when our first baby-turned-five-year-old landed in Mrs. Maxey’s class at Gause Elementary.


Mrs. Maxey is one of those teachers who seem born to teach. Her classroom is organized, bright, welcoming, with just the right visuals and tools at hand at the right time. Her default expression is a smile. She looks happy to be in that classroom, with those children. Her voice even smiles when she introduces a new sight word, a new math strategy, and reminds forgetful children of prior learning. Finger spaces between words are a joyful experience! Choosing books for one’s book box is a matter of great importance and fun. Seemingly small tasks, such as taking only three seconds at the drinking fountain and remembering your coat for recess are cheerfully recited, just as if she was saying them for the first time in her life, not the nine thousand and ninety-seventh.

Mrs. Maxey has eyes on the back of her head and can attend to many unrelated tasks at once. She can direct multiple parent volunteers, coordinate schedules with her team teacher, check neglected backpacks, remind just the right students to move their lunch tags to the correct slot, cajole another sentence from a distracted child, and deliver her son to his preschool class in the building. All in the five minutes before the bell rings.

Kindergartners have so much to learn. Like how to smile for a school picture.

She knows that teachers never stop learning. She goes to kindergarten teaching conferences during summer vacation and workshops on the weekends. When the Common Core came down last year, she created and found new activities for new standards, and she adjusts and modifies assessments and lessons year-to-year, week-to-week, hour-by-hour, even!

Most teachers breathe a sigh of relief and settle down to eat their lunches in the staff room or in the blessed quiet of their classrooms while their students raise ruckus in the cafeteria. Not Mrs. Maxey. She and her team teacher, Mrs. Goodling, scarf down their meal while the children are at recess, then during Kindergarten lunch, you will find them walking up and down the cafeteria benches. They twist open lids, poke straws into holes, wipe up messes, sweetly insist that children not neglect their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tear open stubborn packages, and mediate arguments. They instruct upon the nuances of the compost bin, the recycle bin, and the trash bin. They heap on smiles and cheerful encouragement to kids who are Ready To Go Home.


And – Mrs. Maxey has spirit, yes she does. On October 31st, you might find her dressed as a “Despicable Me” minion; at the annual Sport-a-thon, she runs laps with her kinders; and on Muffins with Mom morning, there she is serving juice with a smile.


When Mrs. Maxey goes home, I know for a fact she does not collapse on the couch in exhaustion (as I would after a day like hers). Her police officer husband is off to work for the evening, and her name changes to “Mom”. She has two boys, one of whom is a 2nd grader in my daughter’s class. She makes dinner, drives to football practice, and supervises homework. The proof of consistent and caring parenting is evident in her sons.

Then there is the Hoedown. Mrs. Maxey pretty much had me at “hello”, but the Hoedown endeared her to me forever. It makes me consider adoption so I can have another kindergartner someday. How do two kindergarten teachers get 44 five- and six-year-olds to gallop in a line, kazoo on key, wave cowboy hats and swing “lassos” in synchrony, swing their partner, and sing “Happy Trails” while swaying to and fro without utter chaos erupting? Magic, I tell you. Plus they can all read and write and add and subtract and walk quietly in a line and treat their friends with kindness and respect. Nine months of marvelous kindergarten magic.


Thank you, Mrs. Maxey and Kindergarten teachers everywhere for the way you love our children and teach them how to read, write, listen, raise their hands, think about others, play kindly, take turns, eat respectfully in the cafeteria, work hard, forgive offenses, make good choices, and sing and dance. I don’t really want to say goodbye. I hope you don’t mind when I continue to wave into your doorway on my way to the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classrooms.

Love, Ellie and Jack’s mom

A Very Iraqi Celebration

Today commences spring break in our household. Within two hours of the breakfast dishes being cleared, a fort was constructed under the dining room table, one sibling was banished from, then welcomed back into the fort, “Club Dryden” was written into existence, and plans were made for an afternoon visit to the “Toy Library”. The whiteboard, which normally displays dull to-do lists for school days now reads: “fun Choosis: Eat Canby, Play!, Outside, Library, inside, Popcicls out of Juise”. My kids have spring break a week before the school district where I work part-time. John is spending the first week in Haiti with a couple guys from our church. Instead of viewing these circumstances as not having a spring break at all, I am choosing to enjoy it as a two-week spring break. Ok?

It is also the season of Lent, and this year, following our Rice and Beans Gathering, John and I have been reading through a book called “A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor” by Chris Seay. It includes short readings during the 40 “fasting days” and seven “feast days” of Lent, with reflections on the Israelites’ exodus and Jesus’ final days. Readers are encouraged to consider their own need for exodus – “from the cares of consumerism to those of God; from manufactured needs to real ones; from accumulating more to giving more away.” This week, John will literally take a place at a table in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The rest of us celebrated with a very special feast the Sunday before spring break.

The feast was in honor of an anniversary. Our dear friends Janet and Bassam, along with their three daughters moved to the United States from Baghdad as refugees one year ago this month. A few months after moving in to their apartment in Washougal, Janet’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece also arrived and settled in two doors down. Getting to know this family, break bread with them (and dip it in hummus), and watch our children play together has been an inexpressible gift from God. They have had many struggles in their transition to life in America, and walking alongside them during these last 12 months has been hard, humbling and hilarious. Janet and Bassam’s contagious warmth, energy, courage, intelligence, and optimism have drawn other families into relationship with them. Yesterday we gathered five families into our home and celebrated God’s goodness to all of us in bringing Janet, Bassam, Nancy, Zaven, and their daughters to the United States.

Janet and Nancy brought ingredients for a traditional Iraqi meal and taught my friends and me how to prepare it. It took five women, four teenagers, and three hours to get it on the table. We made Dolma, Tabbouleh, Chicken Biryani, Baba Ganoush, Hummus, a dish of eggplant rolled up around meat and onion, two kinds of soup, and white rice. “For the first time in forever,” the entire contents of my kitchen cupboards were emptied and put use (“who knew we owned eight thousand salad plates?”). I am not exaggerating when I tell you that every bowl, pot, and spoon in the house was used, washed, and used again. And sometimes again.

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I darted around the kitchen responding to requests such as, “a bowl with holes in the bottom!” and a “dish with tabs!” and “A small pot! No, not that small! No, smaller!” and “Jenae! I need a lad!” (after much gesticulating, I ascertained that a “lid” was what was needed).



My lovely friend Annie who likes to cook “poetically” (her words, not mine) chopped and minced and chopped some more (“chop faster!”). Later, while minding a frying pan of almonds, she was severely chastised by our teachers and told to move aside so the almonds could be properly browned. Iraqis don’t approve of poetic stirring.



Karen likes to be in pictures. And she’s just so cute we like her to be in them.

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If my daughter grows up to be half as delightful as these teenage girls, I will be one happy mama.



Children did what children do, whether their place of birth is Baghdad or Washougal. I have no idea what the kids were doing most of the three hours. They popped in and out of the kitchen asking when it was time to eat, helped a bit, and made lots of noise and fun. Afterwards, Jack could only tell me that “Grant had a pocketknife!”

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We prayed and ate and laughed and ate some more.

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After the delicious meal, Annie taught us the Virginia Reel. We danced and laughed so hard our sides hurt. A certain sixteen-year-old collapsed to the floor in hysterics.

The quality of this photo is terrible, but I couldn’t resist Annie in this one.



Nancy and Janet fired up some Assyrian music on YouTube and taught us a wonderful simple dance from their country. If you watch the video clip, you may be surprised to learn that no alcohol was consumed this evening. Much eggplant and garlic was, however, and perhaps that explains some things.

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It was a happy night. And I think it was no coincidence that the passage I read that very morning prepared my heart with this:

“God is serious when it comes to setting aside time to celebrate. Do you think it is possible to celebrate God’s love too much? On the other hand, is it possible to celebrate His love too little? I think so. If we err, we likely err by not celebrating God enough. So take these feasting days and do something special. As you eat great food, take a special trip, dance, and laugh, do it as unto the Lord.” – Chris Seay, “A Place at the Table: 4o Days of Solidarity with the Poor”

So we celebrate God’s love to our Iraqi brothers and sisters this year in the United States; his love to us drawing us into friendship with them; and his love to the world, from Port-au-Prince to Baghdad to Washougal – by sending his son Jesus Christ to live the life we could not live, die the death we should die, and by his resurrection bring us into right relationship with himself, for his glory and our joy.

Lent 2014: A “Rice and Beans Gathering”

The last few years our family has been trying to learn more about what life is like for our brothers and sisters around the world and to follow God’s commands and Jesus’ example throughout scripture to care for the poor and oppressed. We want to raise our children in a way that they are aware that the comfortable North American existence they enjoy is not the norm for most of the world – not to fill them with guilt, but to give them hope that even they can make a difference in the world. This has not been an easy task!

So, we did this crazy thing this year. It started with an invitation to our friends and family to join us for a gathering of sorts. We timed it to coincide with the start of Lent – the Christian tradition of a 40-day season of reflection and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus. During this period, some choose to fast or otherwise give up things that hold us to our material world in order to recall our need for Jesus Christ, consider his sufferings, and repent of sin. It is a good season to rethink about how we live, develop some new habits, or make sacrifices.

We wanted to enter the season of Lent with a reflection on Isaiah 58, which describes the kind of fast God desires from his people:

No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

Isaiah 58:6-7

Using a resource developed by Live58:, we planned an afternoon at our home the weekend before Ash Wednesday. We served a simple meal of rice and beans, showed the video “58:The Film” (a story of the global church in action on behalf of the poor), and discussed the implications of the film. We had a variety of hands-on activities for families to guide children in understanding issues of poverty, lists of resources and organizations, and ideas for follow-up action steps.

We ended up having 31 people at our house that afternoon, ages 1-61.


Rice and beans were (mostly) happily consumed.

"I really like rice and beans!" - Kelly

“I really like rice and beans!” – Kelly

The kids loved the book table.


Grownups had a book table too.


Consistent with my nerdiness for such things, I prepared a folder with a few documents for each family who came. It included a list of organizations we love with their financial/accountability ratings, a summary of their work, and ten key areas related to poverty that they address; and some lists of action steps for raising funds, identifying with poverty, and serving your local neighbors.


An Offering of Letters station for people to write to members of congress about hunger issues.

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An Offering of Letters for Kids – a station for kids to draw or write to a sponsored child. Jack drew a volcano because he loves volcanoes. I reminded him that Gerson, one of our sponsored children, lives near a volcano in Nicaragua. Ta-da! Random drawing turned into a picture for Gerson.


A drawing! Two $25 Kiva cards were up for grabs. Look here for how “fasting” on rice and beans helped fund these Kiva cards: Fasting in Action


Ellie wanted to win!

The Live58: film was very moving. It captured the hopelessness of people living in the majority world without access to basic needs, highlighted evidences of hope in the midst of poverty and injustice, named encouraging statistics of progress already accomplished (e.g., the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has been cut from 52 per cent (1981) to 26 percent (2005)), and called the North American church to action – directing our abundance to help meet the needs of our neighbors here and abroad. After the film, the kids drew some pictures about what they saw and we talked about “needs” vs. “wants”.

In Jack’s bedroom, families took a journey around the world through a series of eight hands-on stations. Each station corresponded with one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (Click on the symbols on this page for descriptions and fact sheets). These goals have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest. A few years ago I came across a resource by Micah Challenge which put together “prayer stations” for each of the MDGs. I tweaked them a little and used them over a period of four sessions of my Summer Book Club for Moms and Daughters in 2012. I pulled these out again and we set up all eight around Jack’s room.

These were the highlight of the afternoon. The wording of the MDGs are pretty abstract for kids, but each one addresses something that kids could understand if given some support. So, each station had a short story and a practical activity to bring it to their level.

MGD 1: Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger


Digging through stones to find valuable minerals

Digging through stones to find valuable minerals to demonstrate the type of work many children are forced to do in order to  survive.

MGD 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

Drawing or writing what they have learned at school and filling a backpack with school supplies

Drawing or writing what they have learned at school, and filling a backpack with school supplies

MGD 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women


Find the girl figure hidden in the bowl of rice and stand her up equal with the boy.

MGD 4: Reduce Child Mortality


Making a baby out of play-doh, then shaping the baby into a child who lives past the age of 5.


MGD 5: Improve Maternal Health


Instructions for folding an origami mother and baby.


MGD 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Other Diseases


Mosquito nets are a major tool in combating the spread of malaria.


and they make one feel like a princess

MGD 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability

To demonstrate shortening the distance people need to travel for water, kids moved the stone (block) path between the village and pond and built a clean water well close to the village.

To demonstrate shortening the distance people need to travel for water, kids moved the stone (block) path between the village and pond and built a clean water well close to the village.

MGD 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Search for the fair trade symbol!

Search for the fair trade symbol!

Yes, this afternoon was a lot of work. But it was so fulfilling to put into action the many things we have been learning and share it with others. We find that working through these things in community is so, so good. I am deeply grateful for our family and friends who daily point us to Jesus and care for the poor and powerless.

Finally, we give thanks to our God, the true sustainable solution to poverty and just living, because:

Psalm 146