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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Grownups had a book table too.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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

MGD 4: Reduce Child Mortality

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

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MGD 5: Improve Maternal Health

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Instructions for folding an origami mother and baby.

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

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

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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