Grayson and the Grosses: Stories and lessons from our maiden camper Christmas voyage across America.

A couple of years ago Bryan and I were planning an adult trip to California with friends, which was going to include a good bit of driving from San Francisco to Sonoma to Tahoe. My husband briefly suggested that we rent an RV, to which one of our friends replied, “I am NOT going on a vacation which requires the toilet to travel with us.” This was a good two years prior to COVID, after which all travel stopped for months, and then timidly restarted with severe limitations and changes.

The first couple of forays we had into the changed landscape of travel in a COVID-stricken world revealed that the “service” aspect of travel no longer exists, at least for now. The little niceties that you take for granted even at Holiday Inn–people making your bed, replacing your towels, free coffee, extra hand soaps and shampoos, aren’t part of the deal anymore, but here’s the catch, you’re still paying the same price. We haven’t quite figured out if the travel/hospitality industry is really paralyzed by fear that they’re going to transmit or contract COVID, or if they’ve realized that they can still get paid for doing much less work.

Either way, pulling a toilet with you and having all your preferred comforts along for the ride no longer sounded as low brow, because at least you’re going somewhere. In fact, it started sounding quite convenient and adventurous. Which is why when my husband and I looked at our December calendar, (at a journey that started falling together in chunks from North Carolina to Colorado and back with multiple stops along the way) a camper-trailer seemed like the only way to go.

We started researching with a week to spare before we needed to leave, and our list of requirements narrowed the field significantly. Our camper had to be light enough to be pulled by an F-150, but new enough that it would be attractive to other RVers should we decide to rent it and have a low likelihood of major repair needed in the near future. It needed to have sleeping quarters for a family of five, lots of storage, to be able to handle freezing temps, and be within our budget (always the hard part).

We settled on the Keystone Outback Ultralite, and because my husband is a master at finding the very best deal possible, we were able to snag a 2021 OU that had been returned to a dealership in Mississippi and was now available for much less because the first owners had gotten a divorce. And Mississippi just happened to be the second stop on our voyage–it was meant to be.

The combined camping experience between me and Bryan until December included multiple backpacking trips in the US and Europe, car camping at state parks with our kids, and a couple of years with a rugged pop-out, tent camper we’d purchased in Germany. I didn’t expect to feel any differently about our new vessel than I did about any other camp setup, but I was quite surprised by the excitement and anticipation that swept over me the first time I stepped into Grayson, which is what I named our camper.

Hello Grayson!

I saw her as our ship, our literal home on the road, our cozy nest, our opportunity. In a year when at times I felt the walls of my home closing around me as events were cancelled one after the other, here was our key, our safe place to base ourselves as we explored, got away and adventured. And she is so lovely–gray barnwood interior, plush leather recliners and bench seats, a flat-screen TV and hidden pantry with loads of space, goose-neck faucet and roomy shower.

After stocking her full of supplies I’d ordered and sent to my sister’s house in Biloxi, and a couple of Walmart runs later, we flipped open the brand new Good Sam camping catalog that we’d acquired with our membership at Camping World and pointed ourselves westward toward our ultimate destination of Grand Junction, Colorado where we were meeting my in-laws for Christmas.

What We Learned About Camping/RVing

Since our first experience with a camper was during COVID, we have no basis of comparison for our trip versus what it is like to RV during “normal” times. I imagine that a lot of the nuances of actually driving, running, operating a camper are similar to what others know, but I also suspect the novelties and amenities of camping, being in a community of campers, and the proximity you can have to other people in your same demographic, has been significantly diminished by COVID, like everything else.

I now know that we were very ambitious with our first trip–not only did we do this during COVID, we did it for a month during winter, during Christmas, when you have to pack the bulkiest clothing into the most limited space for an extended period of time. We had multiple events/occasions to consider: a wedding in Alabama, virtual school, Christmas and skiing in Colorado. So it wasn’t just clothes we were stuffing into every possible crevice of Grayson–there were laptops, notebooks, folders, gifts, skis, boots, helmets. It was cold everywhere we went, so we spent very little time outside and had to give each other a lot of grace and get very creative with our little space.

We learned that we suddenly noticed campers everywhere–mini campers, travel trailers, fifth wheels and luxurious RV’s— more and more the farther west we drove. We learned that pulling a travel trailer drastically altered the quality of our ride, so we began to notice and remember which states have the smoothest roads, and realized that we didn’t really want to be on them for more than three hours if we could help it. A rough stretch of asphalt meant our daughter needed Dramamine (and may mean that we need a bigger truck) and almost always meant that I found snacks and spices scattered across the floor of the pantry when we’d reached our stop for the night. We learned about winterizing hoses at night so that our water lines didn’t freeze and break, that for off-the-grid-camping you need a big jug of water with which to wash, flush and brush.

We discovered the intimacy and shivering closeness of private lunches of soups cooked over our gas stove-top, or sandwiches of cold-cuts, as the five of us squished and huddled onto our bench seat dinette. We figured out how to time our showers in an RV in winter to about seven minutes before the hot water is gone. We found out how to latch the doors properly so they didn’t slide off track during a long drive, the importance of bins and storage racks, precisely in which order to flush your gray and black water, how to take wide turns into a gas station, which gas stations refill your propane, and on and on. We bounced back and forth between phone hot-spots and public WiFi for work and school.

We grew as a family. Because the chores were novel in Grayson, the kids found it fun to help with washing and drying dishes, sweeping and mopping the floor, and helping Daddy with connecting and disconnecting hoses and cords. Everyone had a part to play to keep the ship running smoothly so that we could continue on our voyage. When the time came for us to do real life, we turned Grayson into a mobile schoolhouse/office for virtual school meetings and conference calls. As has been true with my children through most of COVID, the more challenges we’ve thrown at them, the more adjustments we’ve made, the more flexible and positive they’ve become, and the month on the road with Grayson highlighted this beautifully. They settled into camper life and our mini routines with ease and optimism. Bryan and I found our routines as well–gazing at whatever new surroundings were outside our window in the morning with steaming mugs of coffee warming our fingers; or curling up in the two recliners with our nightcaps after the kids went to bed, while we watched whatever channels we could get over the air and hung our feet over our plug-in heater/fake fireplace.

What We Learned About America

She truly is beautiful. We covered 13 states in our journey from North Carolina to Colorado and back, and I spent most of it just staring at our shifting and changing landscape, marveling at how many different climates and features and land forms decorate this vast country. The Rocky Mountains are often touted as being majestic, but just as majestic to me were the rugged mesas and deserts of New Mexico and Utah. My mind couldn’t comprehend the extension of land stretching out in front of me as we drove through the flat lands of Texas and Kansas. I kept thinking, surely this is the type of thing that was so eerie to early explorers when they wondered whether they would fall off the edge of the world. The sunsets out west just seemed bigger, grander and more colorful than what I experience at home when the sky is segmented by trees. The cities, new and bustling, always gave me little bit of nervous excitement as I wondered if we were actually going to make it through the traffic with our extra length. The arches and towers of rock jutting from the ground and canyon walls were startling and intimidating–until my kids started trying to figure out which animals or mythical creatures they resembled.

Just as noteworthy though, were the people we encountered. Although sitting in our homes and looking at the news we all are led to believe that Americans are disconnected, that we’ve changed for the worst, that we’ve lost the openness, the spirit and the drive we’re known for, I did not find that to be the case. From Alabama to Mississippi, to Texas, to New Mexico, to Utah and Colorado and Kansas and Illinois and Tennessee, we found people smiling, living, enjoying. In RV parks and state parks and homes across the nation we found people willing to share their stories of their days on the road. People congratulated us and encouraged us in our new venture, promising great memories in store. We experienced true blessings when our truck almost stranded us in New Mexico and a Ford dealership went above and beyond to help us two days before Christmas.

Mile after mile, my mind conjured up images of pioneers migrating, discovering, settling, building, persevering–images that I’ve never seen firsthand, images way before my time. But it was here on this land that dreams were pursued and captured and achieved, because America is a land of go-getters and doers. A land of seekers and adventurers–people who never give up.

It was a relief for me to see as our family pursued this, one of our own dreams in the midst of a nightmare, that the pioneer spirit has never left America. Why would we think that it left us in 2020? No challenge has ever deprived us of that spirit, and it won’t succumb to COVID either. The desires to create, innovate and cultivate, to build and inspire and connect are modern adaptations of those pioneer ways that live on in us, that thrive on community, and our American community is strong. It hearkens back to the days that we built it. In 2021, I pray and hope that we keep pushing, that we not allow the rumors to convince us what is true until we have gone and seen for ourselves…that there is always more beyond our horizons. Let us never give up.

Sheltering in Peace–5 Weeks in Puerto Rico

Like so many other people, we had Spring and Summer plans that were dashed within the first week of COVID. I tried to keep my complaining at bay, knowing that people all over the globe were dealing with canceled vacations, tournaments, weddings, graduations, even very sadly, funerals. I think all of us believed this would be very temporary, that we’d be in the full swing of things, surely, by the Fall.

Summer passed serenely for us–full of local hikes, afternoons at our community pool, plenty of TV and a few restorative, short trips to the beach and the mountains and the tentative hope that COVID conditions were improving. And whether or not I believed all the hype, or agreed with the regulations in place to manage the health crisis, it impacted my life and my family’s life whether I liked it or not, and we found ourselves making daily choices not just about our actions, but about our mindset and perspective. The choices were more deliberate and important when my husband lost his corporate job due to a company-wide resource action that terminated 30-40% of its workforce and the school year began, and we were all under one roof, all day from Monday-Friday, clamoring for any quiet spot with good WiFi where everyone could concentrate and focus on their Google Meets or web conferences.

Every day was a practice in focusing on the Lord, of asking and even begging Him to remind me that the world was bigger than what was going on inside my postage stamp of reality. I woke up earlier and earlier to find moments of silence in the darkness before my family woke to hear from Him, to ask for a new perspective that would remind me that His kingdom depended far more on His faithfulness than my feelings of drudgery day to day, the growing sense of despair and hopelessness that this was never going to end, that I’d be shut off from normalcy, from having hope for community and peace in our country again as the social and political scene seemed to be deteriorating by the day. And then I daily repented of thumbing my nose in God’s face to think that my wonderful life could ever be described as drudgery, that I could ever be so ungrateful as to entertain the thought that there isn’t hope. (Sometimes repentance is a one-time surrender and the Lord turns your heart inside out, hiding you from the sin that wants to entangle you. But sometimes, repentance is a regular practice–a daily surrender of your incorrect thinking). In these moments, my husband was a great inspiration to me, as he never lost a step in stewarding his role as provider, and he did it with patience, temerity, and wisdom–trusting in the skills, connections and experience he’d built over time and in God’s proven good provision for us over the years. His hard work and demonstration of putting one foot in front of the other, showed me that he was believing there were better things ahead.

In mid-August, with the start of a school year unlike any other, Bryan and I were talking about the unique set of circumstances we had in this COVID season–all of us being home, we realized that we could really be “home” anywhere, as long as we had good WiFi, stayed within the US and relatively close to the Eastern time zone so that the kids could join their live instructions during the week. By this time, the free hours to think (away from a regular job) had spawned a new business idea that Bryan was ready to develop. His business partners and developers were located in Puerto Rico, which conveniently checked off all our boxes, and my head began swimming with visions of beaches and sunshine and crashing waves–potential moments of natural therapy after a long day of screen time (for the kids), and managing screen time (for me).

Plans were made the way they usually are in our home–me dreaming, scheming and voicing my preferences; Bryan taking the reigns and booking things with a speed and efficiency that would take me a week to implement. We took COVID tests, we set up management for our AirBnBs while we were gone, we packed and arranged rides to the airport (which wasn’t scary at all—pretty empty and pretty easy place to avoid crowds these days. But it allows you to get a peak into people’s varying degrees of COVID freak-out). We arrived at said airport two hours before our scheduled flight only to find out it was delayed and spent 10 hours there before we finally left, arriving in Puerto Rico at 4:30 in the morning on the following day–dead tired with three kids in tow who started falling asleep sitting straight up on a bench as they watched the sun rise in a rental car parking lot.

Approximately 6am in Puerto Rico–been awake for 24 hours.

The weeks following unfolded much like that–full of surprises and schedules and plans that fluctuated from day to day. The constants through it all were my family, the ocean, the sunshine, and the Lord. People came in and out of our lives in those five weeks in Puerto Rico, and it was no small realization to me what a blessing it was that during a time when the world is so closed off from each other, when we are being told to distance, to scatter, the God-given desire to encounter each other and build relationships is still a need for most people. Whether it was the surf instructor two doors down, the single guys on my husband’s business development team, the new families we met in the elite ex-pat community of Dorado, or the local pastor and his wife at the church we decided to try one Sunday, we found people eager to connect and share community. It was a relief to me to see that need alive in a place the media would have me believe is inaccessible.

What may seem like an opposition to those statements above, is that I also rediscovered the importance of disconnecting for my relational health. I spent so many hours staring out at the ocean–pondering its power, the way it beckons, the way it makes one feel small and insignificant but at the same time fills you with gratitude to be a part of creation and witness the beauty of the natural world around you. I have no idea how much time I actually sat there in a Tommy Bahama chair over the course of five weeks, gazing at the surf and breaking waves, observing sea turtles, not talking to anyone except my children, soaking in the simplicity and power of God’s presence. But I do know that every second, every minute was essential for my peace. This world tells us everything is so dependent on us and our decisions and that there can be no peace, when our Savior has told us just the opposite.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

I believe in those moments, He was speaking that to me, reminding me that tapping into His peace, which is always present, requires my being still. And seeing the waves and the sea life behave according to their design, reminded me and encouraged me as God alone is the maker, the sustainer and the protector of life, and there is actually very little that depends upon my action or inaction in this world where He is the ultimate authority. He holds it all together. As I silently pondered the mysteries and unknowns of the expansive and deep ocean before me, I sensed His Spirit bringing closure to some of my own struggles with sin, and temptation to put my temporal desires first, to get lost in sinful despair, to have my whims satisfied. I consciously released the stress over unknowns to Him.

The ocean throws its surf and spray violently onto shore over and over again, never tiring, but always leaving behind treasures, little gifts scattered across the sand that are only visible if we’re patiently searching for them. We must remain intentionally patient to find the best shells, the tiny crabs and mollusks that want to run and hide from threats to their environment. Likewise, community and peace in these unpredictable and hostile times require intention, perseverance in stillness, patience and gentleness –the best relationships and changes are worth risking the shifting tides and the occasionally violent and surprising currents. Underneath all the efforts usually lie memories and experiences that remind us that there is reward in seeking community, in claiming peace, much like the reward of a handful of colorful and unique shells after walking the shore.

Finding treasure

Leaving Puerto Rico was bittersweet–to be pulled from a place that served as our escape for five weeks to return to normal life was difficult for us all. We came back with tan skin and blonder hair. My children picked up some Spanish phrases, they learned names of new foods and came to expect a Reggaeton beat as the soundtrack of the day. They gained a knowledge of the ocean and marine life that had not existed before we’d arrived in Puerto Rico. Although our daily life schedule had not changed while away, we pared our essential activities down to school, work, play, basic errands, and simple interactions with the people around us. I began to realize that our lives in Puerto Rico were really the same as our lives back in North Carolina–just with a tropical setting, different people with the same needs and concerns, and ultimately minor cultural differences. Understanding this prepared me for how I could transfer this posture of peace, this sense of gratitude for something so special, back to my home state and see it as special again, and not as drudgery.

Likewise, community and peace in these unpredictable and hostile times require intention, perseverance in stillness, patience and gentleness –the best relationships and changes are worth risking the shifting tides and the occasionally violent and surprising currents.

Christians know that the Lord does not intend for us to live in despondent isolation, but to pour into each other, to enter into difficult places at difficult times with eagerness and compassion. That is why the COVID crisis has been so damaging to humanity–resulting in record numbers of divorces and addictions and depression and weight gain and suicide, because we cannot live without connection, without hope for community.

So my desire is that the being still, the opportunity to shelter in the absence of noise and worry and fear, the peace and hope that God grew in me in Puerto Rico, will bloom gratitude as I remember the way the earth, water and sky bore witness to His presence and faithfulness every day. I pray that, no matter how the unknowns batter me in the next year, however many times I am knocked into the sand, I will remember to look around for treasure in the moments and community scattered around me. I am grateful this year for the answered prayer of knowing, the balance of understanding, that there always are forces and stories much larger than my square of property that are infinitely impacted by circumstances that I may or may not see, currents roiling and churning under the surface. But even though those things may be huge and beyond my ability, your ability to control, we can look for the treasures in the midst and reach out to take hold of them.


Far From Suburbia: What I Learned in Two Hours in the Slums of San Francisco

I was uncomfortable to say the least.  From the moment my Uber pulled over and I stepped out of its pristine cleanliness onto the wet and trash littered sidewalk in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, I felt my guard go up.  My shoulders tensed and my head swung left to right as I looked for number 232 Jones Street.  The storefronts lined the sidewalk without a break, many of them plastered with posters, decorated with graffiti or marred by cracked glass and rust stains.  Somber faced people passed on either side of the road without making eye contact with me, but somehow I knew they still saw me.  The drone of traffic was occasionally broken up by people 20 feet away from each other shouting jokes, a woman babbling nonsense to herself as she pushed an overloaded shopping cart.

I stuck out like a sore thumb–clutching my purse, wearing clean Nike sneakers, eyes wide and afraid.  This was not my suburban North Carolina sidewalk.  I walked up it a few feet, counting the numbers before deciding that I’d gone too far and then turned around and retraced my steps.  It was nestled in among buildings I’d just passed, and seeing the sign on the door, I breathed in relief:

San Francisco City Impact Mission

Opening the door I was greeted by a smiling young woman who invited me to sit while I waited for someone named Andrea, who had been emailing with me the week before and had given me instructions for meeting her at the City Impact office.  When she emerged and introduced herself, she apologized as she confessed that she’d forgotten who I was and what I was doing there.  I chuckled and repeated what I’d told her over email.  My husband was in San Francisco for a work conference.  I’d tagged along on his trip as a little vacation.  I’d never been to San Francisco before and the trip was mostly pleasure, but I liked to take a little bit of time serving in a local mission as a way of getting to know the city and not spending my entire vacation solely focused on pleasing myself.  Despite my altruistic explanation, there was a slight swell of pride in my chest as I spoke.  I thought of the old Friends’ episode where Joey tells Phoebe that there is no such thing as a selfless good deed and she sets out to prove him wrong.

Recognition came to her face as I explained my presence and she started nodding.

“Oh THAT’S right!  I’m sorry I just totally blanked about why you were here because you didn’t come through our regular volunteer pipeline.  I do apologize.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“We’re so glad to have your help though.  Thanks for coming down.  I’ll take you over and introduce you to Randy and he’ll get you settled.”

Randy is a diminuitive man orginially from the Phillipines, a former youth pastor who was now dividing his time between overseeing operations at City Impact and setting up events at the Moscone Center, San Francisco’s convention center.  He took my hand and gave it a firm shake, smiling warmly when Andrea introduced us.

“Great!  Thanks so much for being here.  Come on in and I’ll show you what we’re doing.”

As Andrea said goodbye and turned to go back to the office, I followed Randy inside the meal hall.  It’s a basic cafeteria-style room–tile floor, white walls, folding tables and chairs set up the length of the room, about enough to accomodate a maximum of 50 people.  All the chairs were arranged to face the small stage at the far end of the room, where a simple podium stood in front of a cross mounted on a backdrop of shiplap.

The air inside the hall was warm, close and musty.  I wasn’t sure if the smell came from the bedraggled people already lingering in the room or the crates and boxes of donated produce that were stacked up just inside the door–perhaps it was both.

Several eyes followed me as I followed Randy, who was walking quickly and greeting people just as quickly.  He took me back to the small kitchen behind the main part of the hall.

“So I’m a little disorganized today.” he chuckled amicably.  “Cara who usually runs our meal service isn’t here, and I don’t really know what I’m doing.  But we’re gonna figure it out.”

He introduced me to an older Asian man named Yomo who didn’t speak any English, but who was so accustomed to the flow of the meal services that he didn’t really need to talk or understand what you were saying.  The entire time I was there he rotated from one task to another, filling plates, washing pans, and wiping tables.  I quickly learned that he  was one of those invaluable, behind-the-scenes people who is often unnoticed, but without whom the entire process would crumble.

Randy continued to describe his plan for the meal.

“Since it’s raining today I asked them to make some soup in the kitchen.  That’s a treat, we don’t normally have soup.  We’ll walk over there now and see what else they have.”

I wondered if I looked as awkward as I felt: my small purse clutched tightly against my side, my Columbia rain slicker zipped up to my throat and my wedding ring turned to the inside of my hand so that my diamond wouldn’t be obvious to people who may see me as a mark.  I mentally kicked myself for not leaving my ring back at the AirBnB.

“Is there a place I should put my stuff?” I asked Randy, hoping for a locker of some kind, or a drawer in the internal office that I could see through the window.

“Uh, yeah, you can just stash it in here.”  He gestured to a stainless steel cupboard full of dishes and pots and pans and aluminum tins.  “Alright, let’s go visit the kitchen.  I’m supposed to have more people helping serve here today but I think a lot of them are running behind with the rain…hopefully it won’t just be us!” The smile had never left his face, but he chuckled nervously.

I only considered putting my purse in the cupboard for a moment, but quickly decided against it, afraid that one of the rough-looking men staring into space in the cafeteria would wander into the room and discover it and take my phone and credit cards.

On the way out, an African-American man named Russ (who unfortunately bore a resemblance to Bill Cosby) stopped to talk to Randy, and when Randy introduced me and said that I was there to volunteer, Russ’s eyes went wide and his arm swung open in the direction of the office.

“Well, I’ve glot plenty for her to do!  Follow me young lady.  I’ll put…”

“Um,” I chuckled nervously. “I’m actually here to help Randy with the meal.”

“Yeah, sorry Russ,” Randy said. “She signed up to do the service.”

“Oh! I’m sorry!  I didn’t realize that.  I shouldn’t have assumed.” Russ apologized.

Randy waved him off.  “It’s okay.  We’ve gotta get over to the kitchen.”

As Randy and I went outside and walked around the corner to the kitchen, he asked me where I was from and how I’d found out about City Impact.  In turn, I asked him a couple of questions just to find out a little more about him, but I was distracted by the people on the street–either shuffling along and staring at the ground as though every step was a movement of great effort, or aggressively striding down the sidewalk with a pace that indicated you should not try to stop them or speak to them.  Expletives were flying through the air, horns were blaring incessantly, steam was hissing up from the ground, the occasional used needle littered the sidewalk, but Randy continued smiling and chatting with the ease of someone who had become accustomed to the noise and subliminal intensity that set all my nerve endings on edge.

The kitchen was full of hot food, with not a soul in sight.  It was almost as if it had been prepared by ghosts.  There were at least six huge pans of penne pasta; two vats of an indistinguishable brothy soup (which we later mixed with the pasta); ovens containing four whole baked chickens; two pans of corn-dogs; two enormous plastic bins of salad; one filled to the brim with sliced oranges and another with slices of baguettes; and three metal pans containing what we assumed was meatloaf, which we ended up smothering with barbecue sauce.

As if on cue, a couple of teenage boys showed up and loaded all the food onto a cart with Randy’s help and wheeled it back over to the room we’d just left, which I now realized wasn’t really a kitchen after all, but more of the assembly station.  Randy quickly filled a styrofoam container, showing us how he’d like the food to be presented and then left me and Yomo alone to get started.  About five minutes later, a young Latino man walked in, donned an apron, snapped on a pair of latex gloves and, smiling, introduced himself to me as Allan.

I’m ashamed to admit that my first glance at Allan produced a combination of fear and judgment.  He was dressed in all black, his pants hanging low on his hips, and he walked with a cocky swagger that didn’t fit his childlike, crinkly-eyed smile.  His hair was closely shaved and the sleeves of his baggy black hoodie were pushed up to reveal tattoos that covered his muscular forearms.  I just knew, that in my regular life in my upper middle-class, mostly white neighborhood, if I was ever alone on a street at night and saw Allan approaching me, I’d assume he was trouble and would cross the street to get away from him or look for storefront to duck into until he’d passed.

As these shameful thoughts came to my mind, I intentionally pushed them aside and started asking Allan questions about how he became involved with City Impact, because the fact that he was beside me, already scooping out the mystery meatloaf onto the plates I was passing him and neatly arranging them on a cart without a word of instruction or a glimpse of hesitation, spoke volumes to me about the heart under the intimidating exterior.

“I drive the truck, pick up donations.  And this part of the job is just a kick-back,” he said, still grinning and looking directly into my eyes.  I found myself grinning back–it was impossible not to.

“A kick back?  What do you mean?”

“I get to see these people smile, just because they’re getting a warm meal.  It makes my day.”  It would’ve sounded cliche, fake, except that it came from someone who looked, on the outside, like they wouldn’t care about such simple, yet essential things.  I liked him so much in that moment–he reminded me of my brother, and I would’ve hugged him if I had known him for longer than five minutes, and if I’d known that he’d have let me.

Soon the room was full of helpers: the same lanky teenage boys who had brought the food over from the kitchen, me, Yomo and Allan, and then an Asian woman in her 40s named Jen, who seemed to take on a leadership role once she arrived.  The two teenagers cut up and joked with Allan while our assembly line passed Styrofoam trays, but their joking around never led to idleness.  They were funny and happy and never once seemed to begrudge their time being spent in a soup kitchen.  At one point, I heard one of them tease Allan about prison, and he calmly but firmly said:

“Man I’m never going back there.”

It was then I wondered whether this young man had to have had an experience with God, whether through Randy, someone else at City Impact, or maybe no one connected there at all, that had changed the course of his life.  And he was here out of gratitude.

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Someone turned on some praise music, and as the cart filled up with trays and the talking ceased, I focused on the words to a popular song, “Build My Life”by Housefires:

“Holy, there is no one like you, there is none beside you, open up my eyes in wonder.  Show me who you are and fill me with your heart and lead me in your love to those around me.”

This chorus was one I had just heard for the first time when attending worship with my parents the Sunday before flying to San Francisco.  It was meaningful while standing and singing it, but it was so much more powerful as it rang in my ears in this tiny makeshift kitchen in the slums of San Francisco, working side by side with people I would normally never encounter–people outside my age group, outside my socioeconomic category, outside my preference.  We were there not to be seen, not to be noticed, praised, graded, or critiqued.  We were there because we’d been led by the Father, in love, to serve those around us, regardless of the legitimacy or caliber of their stories.  And it also explained to me how things just seemed to happen in this place without discussion and even when my first impression was that things were completely disorganized: God was so active here, His love so palpable, that people joined in where they were needed without complaint or rush, because they just wanted to be His hands and feet.

Randy spoke to the crowd of wet men and women, about 30 of them, and he brought them a message of hope, of challenge.  His diminutive frame seemed to grow larger as he filled the musty air with fragrant truth.  He reminded them that Jesus is able to change their hearts, their desires, to reflect His own heart and then use them for His glorious purposes.  His angle surprised me, because on an average day I would’ve looked at these people as beyond hope, as expendable, as weak.

Their faces lit up as we brought them food.

“Thank you.” “Please.” “Where are you from?” “I used to live in North Carolina–Winston-Salem, do you know it?” “What brought you to San Francisco?”

My own eyes were opened in wonder in those two hours in the Tenderloins.  I marveled, and inwardly praised God, for these reminders and the urging to come to City Impact, so that I could see again how wrong I was and how easily my assumptions block the pipeline for Christ’s life-changing love.  For these people, so easily ignored and looked down upon by the rest of the world because they outwardly wear their struggles, simply reflect what so many of us are like on the inside: broken, tired, slogging through life, hostile, dirty, hungry.  And City Impact was a place where all of these similarities were laid bare.

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The meal wrapped up and the people left quickly, arms full of to-go boxes, heads nodding in thanks.  A couple of them stopped to say a word to Randy or Russ, but most just walked out the door without looking back.  I guess there wasn’t much to say when this place was so familiar to them, such a regular stop in their days.

I helped wipe some tables and then stood up and looked around the room, understanding that my job was finished.  I went back to the mini-kitchen and tossed my rag in the sink and grabbed my belongings out of the cupboard, which, halfway through the meal I’d decided was actually the best place for my purse and jacket after I’d tried to dish out pasta with my purse constantly swinging forward into my arm.  I went back through the cafeteria toward the door and was grabbed by Russ, who apologized profusely for assuming I was there to help him. I assured him it was fine, that I wasn’t offended.

“Thank you Jesus!” He breathed, wiping his brow dramatically.  He then sat down on the edge of the stage and started to give me his testimony, telling me how he became a part of City Impact, and about the biggest roadblocks and problems the mission was experiencing.  Something he kept saying over and over again was,

“It’s bad out here.  People are hurting!”

He asked me to pray for him.  I felt so unworthy to pray for a person, for people, for a movement that was investing in the details of the most difficult environment in San Francisco.  Knowing that they would be back there tomorrow pouring themselves out, and that I would never look back and would eventually get on my airplane and go back to my comfortable furniture; my needle-free, swept sidewalk; my suburban life with an expanse of green grass, put a lump in my throat and I had to fight the shame, the thought that Russ didn’t really need my prayer.

But I prayed anyway.  It was uncomfortable at first, but as he squeezed my hand and agreed with me in prayer, “Mmm-hmm.  Yes Lord, yes Jesus,” my wall crumbled yet again and tears started to well up in my closed eyes, because I felt as though I was praying for a brother.  I knew that I’d made a friend, one only God could’ve brought into my life.

Russ said thank you after I said Amen.  He gave me a quick hug and then jumped off the stage and disappeared.  I shouted goodbye to the rest of the volunteer team, who responded with smiles, waves and a few thank-yous, and then pulled Randy outside for a photo under the City Impact sign.  His smile was still there, even in his eyes, as I walked away and called probably my 20th Uber in San Francisco.

A week or so later I was showing my six-year-old daughter how to pot some pansies for the pedestal on our front porch.  She was eager to help, but she wanted to just pull the pansy out of the plastic container and stick it straight into the pot.  I explained to her that we first had to break the soil that had retained the stiff, rectangular shape of its confined space in the plastic.  She watched as I gently squeezed the soil and freed the delicate roots, turning the rectangle into a mess and then placed the pansy into the waiting bed of soil in the bottom of the large clay pot.

“See honey, this pansy can’t grow anymore if it just stays in the same space.  It needs to have more room to grow, but first we have to break up the soil and expose the roots so that they can grow deeper and stronger, so that the flowers will grow higher and produce more buds.”

I’d like to thank San Francisco City Impact, for being the space that I needed to see, to experience in order that God might break down my comfort and shallow soil, expose the frailty of my roots and give me the nourishment and inspiration that I needed to blossom and grow deeply into His love.

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Big Sky: How an Incredible View Will Improve Your Perspective

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The Highlands of Scotland

No this blog post is not about Montana–sorry if the title misled you.  It’s simply about perspective.  I think it’s easier and easier to lose our perspective these days, and most of that is due to the wonderfully tantalizing, convenient and dangerous world of technology.  We have an abundance of information and entertainment literally at our fingertips, but somehow more people today are bored and depressed than ever before.  I don’t think that we were meant to have this endless stream of information spoon-fed to us so easily.  (And when I say “we” I’m primarily referring to first world, Western culture.)  I don’t think that we were were meant to have a digital window that feeds us experiences in a limited-dimensional setting.

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Barcelona, Spain

Recently I was feeling stressed and irritable after a day of just doing my mom-thing around the house: washing and folding laundry, cooking meals, washing dishes, running errands.  During my brief moments of “relaxation” I almost instinctively reached for my phone, but I found that those moments were not really relaxing at all and I was actually pretty annoyed with my kids when they climbed into my lap to see what I was doing.  Then, after dinner while washing dishes I looked outside at my backyard and had an irresistible urge to go out there and lay on our hammock, which is strung between two very tall pine trees that we’ve named after two of our children.

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Not my hammock–fields in Germany near my parents’ village.

So I gave in and did it, and the result was so profound to me that I’m writing about it now.  To lay there and look up at the blue sky just made me happy–happy to be a mom, happy to be living in North Carolina, happy to be ALIVE…even happy to be disturbed moments later when my kids discovered me and climbed into the hammock with me, without flipping me over thankfully.  And again last night, I felt that same sense of happiness and awe when I went outside and gazed at this incredible harvest moon that looked closer and brighter than I have seen it in a long time.  It seemed to be positioned directly in front of my house, but then I realized that the very same moon was just as big and bright and close for millions of other people, and all I could think was WOW.

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Elliott Bay, Seattle, Washington

Sometimes it’s worth coming out of your house, crossing off some things in your schedule, putting your Kindle or phone down on road-trips or in a plane to look out, or up, or down to see something awe-inspiring.  Whether it’s a mountain, a vast expanse of sky, a canyon, miles and miles of twinkling city lights, a patchwork of fields–we need those “WOW” moments that make us feel small to give us fresh perspective, especially if we come from a small, flat town.  Being stuck in your house, or office, or small town for too long can make you and your problems seem too large, too important and too difficult.  This contributes to depression and dissatisfaction that sometimes results in poor decisions and quick-fixes.  In contrast, sitting still under a big sky helps you see the BIG picture, calms and realigns your mind so that you can begin so see what and who really matters.

I was going to try to write a clever ending, but I don’t want you to keep reading.  Wherever you are, stop and look out the window or go outside for a little while.  Try to notice something new.  You may feel something new as well.

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Fjords of Flam, Norway