Sandtown to South Sudan, Baltimore to Yei

 

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We’re leaving next week.

I’ve been waiting to go on the field and be a doctor for over a decade. And yet it’s all happening too fast now.

 

It is hard to wait. It has been hard to wait. I first felt called to cross-cultural service when I was 17 and within the year decided to study medicine and pursue unreached peoples specifically. Through the great work of the GMHC, that calling narrowed to focus on medical education, training and discipling a workforce to meet the health needs that one doctor alone could not meet in his lifetime.

It’s been over ten years of waiting, working, and studying. Some of you have known me since the days when I chronicled my progress on Xanga and we all wondered from time to time if I would ever make it to the field. There were severe illnesses— among other things– that made it seem like I might not ever get out. And then, a few years into medical school, I fell in love with Baltimore.

I did not expect to come to care so deeply about Baltimore or Sandtown. I grew up in the suburbs and lived my life the way of the suburbs; I came to the city for medical school to get out of it what I could before I left for the next thing. I think many people of my age, class, and skin color do the same. I don’t begrudge anyone who does this as long as “the next thing” is worthwhile; the way that education and vocation intersect generally requires most of us with a certain set of gifts spend time in different places for shorter seasons.

I expected my time in Baltimore to be a short season before I did residency at a Family Medicine program that would churn me out ready to hit the field. I was happy to get into the University of Maryland– I didn’t apply to a lot of schools and wanted to be relatively close to my family for the next few years. I continued to commute back to the church I’d grown up in every weekend, playing guitar on the worship team and eating lunch with my family before going back to my Monday morning exams.

I had been reading more and more Wendell Berry, though, which was striking bigger and bigger nerves in me. I loved traveling and had already been to a dozen countries by the time I was 20, but the emotional whiplash of short-term trips was already pricking at me (okay, mostly because of a bad relationship experience during an intense traveling time, but whatever it takes.) I felt convicted that if I was going to care about the place that I was living, I might as well at least go to church nearby.

New Song Community Church happened to be in the same denomination as the church I grew up in, so I tried visiting there first. When I started coming, it was in many respects at the height of its notoriety for being a faithful, orthodox congregation with a zealous commitment to the needs of its neighbors. After years of faithful service, there was a diverse portfolio of associated ministries that served many needs in the community. The preaching mixed the fire of traditional African-American styles with the theology I had learned to love as a teenager. The community was welcoming, diverse, and caring. I fell in love.

 

New Song was a very good place for me to come to at the time that I started attending for many reasons; one of which was that it was a place where I was not special. It was clear that the people I worshiped with and sat under were experts in applying the Bible’s teaching to community development. As a theology nerd with a passion for service, I ate it up.

My wife Maggie and I were falling in love and racing headlong towards marriage at that point, both of us confident that we had been called to cross-cultural service. Following the precepts of the Christian Community Development Association, and the example of several other church members, we decided we might want to relocate to Sandtown.  While I had always had foreign countries in mind, the rich fountain of life at New Song was captivating me and I was excited to jump in.

We were very straightforward with the leaders about our eventual direction, and they were equally straightforward with us (their main advice was to ensure that we let our neighbors know about the fact that we would only be there for a few years.) That summer, I was hospitalized just before we were set to do a rotation in Ethiopia and we ended up spending the time instead sitting on our front porch and getting to know the kids on our block. The more we did and the longer we stayed, the more entrenched Sandtown became in our hearts.

In between my daily interactions with my new neighbors and my training at the hospital where I became intimately familiar with the health issues of Baltimore, I was trying to read as much as I could about the things that shaped the city and my neighborhood. I still love To Live In Peace by Mark Gornik, New Song’s founding pastor, for its birds-eye view of the structural injustices that shaped Baltimore followed by a zoom-in on Sandtown and the history of New Song’s attempts to reclaim the Kingdom of God against those injustices through prayer, preaching, and service. The works of David Simon were also quite helpful, as well as the emerging world things shared on Baltimore Twitter.

As Maggie and I reached our first anniversary, we faced a decision: should we move to another city with a residency program that would get us to the field faster, or stay in Baltimore with the church we had come to love and be a part of? The former felt like quitting just as something good had been begun, but the latter felt like postponing the inevitable.

 

So here we are at the inevitable. I’m glad we stayed.

The last few years, while wonderful for us, have not been easy for New Song. Allan Tibbels, who moved into Sandtown in the 80’s well before it was remotely cool to do so, died six months after we relocated. Some of the associated ministries reached the end of their lifespan, went their own separate ways, or simply could not continue due to lack of funds. Our beloved pastor accepted a call elsewhere, leaving the pulpit empty for nearly a year and a half. It was a winnowing time in many respects and if you really want to know more, there are quite a few sermons that trace out more of the details.

In the midst of all these changes, I felt led to help build something. I was involved with the various functions of the health ministry– it had started off with a volunteer physician seeing people once a week, grown into a primary care clinic, and been cut back to some community activities and classes. The need for some way to address mental health needs in the community had been obvious to many for years, but no one knew how to do so in a way that would be culturally appropriate or helpful. I didn’t know either, but I was willing to try to find out.

There were a lot of meetings. We talked about the same topics– overcoming stigma, training indigenous leaders, appropriately scheduling, thoughtfully communicating– over and over. It was never easy and I spent a lot of time investing in people that I hoped could be leaders, but Satan snatched them away. Four years later, the only thing that seems to have worked is a monthly support group (and of course, that’s the thing that I was least involved with!)

It’s impossible to know what the future holds, and the coalition of people I met with over the years are going to take things forward as God leads. There are many reasons why people in communities like Sandtown don’t want to take advantage of mental health services even when there is an energetic young doctor bending over backwards to help make them more accessible; we now know more of them than ever before. The people I love, look up to, and submit to from the neighborhood insist that simply being a doctor who lives in Sandtown means a lot; as someone who did not grow up here I simply have to trust them and take them at their word that I made a difference in their eyes.

I’m personally convinced that God did not want me to have any success in ministry that could be used against Him to erode our relationship. It does not matter how important or useful an endeavor is; He will have no other gods before Him. When I was 17, after a lifetime in the suburbs I needed to see that there were churches meeting the heartrending needs of the world. At 22, after a few years of dabbling in service projects, I needed to see that I would collapse in on myself if I were not a part of such a church and giving myself to a sustainable endeavor, especially during my long training process. At 27, I needed to see just how hard meeting such needs in a sustainable endeavor could be and how easily I might confuse the Giver and the gifts.

 

Of course, all this time was not simply spent doing paperwork and leaving voicemail messages for people who had implied they might possibly be willing to see the counselor. Maggie and I– and eventually Naomi and Leo, as they came along– were enmeshing ourselves into the lives of our neighbors and other friends in Baltimore. I worked a lot– an average of 60-80 hours per week for the better part of our first five years of marriage– but we never stopped hosting, visiting, and fellowshipping. The more we did it, the more we wanted to do it, and the more enmeshed we became.

We never forgot our first calling, even as the steps necessary to follow it got harder and harder. As we moved closer to residency graduation, sending agencies became more interested when we talked to them at conferences and we eventually found a great fit that was willing to start the process 2 years out. At that time, Naomi was 2 months old and we had a housemate living with us; we knew that we either needed more space or one less person in the house. (Naomi, stubborn then as she is now, refused to move out and get a job while she still knew everything.) We had just about given up on finding a bigger house and submitted our application for overseas service when we got a call informing us that there was a house in Sandtown with everything we wanted at a great price.

We bought it.

 

I remember the weekend we moved: Maggie and I were both working, but I managed to swing a day off. We weren’t even completely packed up when our horde of friends arrived; they spent an hour cheerfully putting our kitchen into boxes before moving it six blocks away. Friends showed up two hours after we started, disappointed that there was nothing else they could do to help. We were overwhelmed with generosity, but that was only the beginning.

New Song has always been dedicated to Sandtown, so much so that it has never sent out any families for overseas service. We had no idea how it would be received when we began the process to move away and we were blown away by the eagerness with which the church leaders wanted to see us go out and be supported as we did so. A roomful of less than a hundred raised $1500 in one offering for us for our survey trip. One of the things that has struck me about life in Sandtown is that my neighbors– even the poorest among them– will sacrifice whatever they can for someone that is needier than they are without hesitation. It’s a blessing, a challenge, and a rebuke for me.

Among many other things, I never realized just how much work it is to move overseas. The process of support raising in particular began to take us away from church on Sunday mornings and the various trainings began to suck up the time that we had been pouring into local ministry. It actually worked out better than we expected to have those forward-looking time demands grow more naturally one at a time until we had managed to mostly extricate ourselves from our local commitments (please pray for some good church nursery volunteers…)

I recently wrote about committing oneself to a few things for the good of the world. Though I wish otherwise, I cannot simultaneously be a Sandtown relocator and practice family medicine in a country with some of the worst maternal health statistics in the world. I lose count when I try to list off all the things I’m passionate about; I lose any hope of getting something good done when I try to do more than a few at a time. For all my love of Wendell Berry, we’re committed as a family to a lifestyle full of partings, transitions, and all the extra work that being mobile requires. We will be committed to South Sudan, but maintaining that commitment could be far more easily supplanted by my commitments as a father to my children or even as a human being with a fragile body to my own health.

I struggle quite a bit to order my commitments. There is a leading from God to South Sudan now as sure as the leading we felt to stay in Sandtown when we could have chosen otherwise, but I don’t know how that will play out any more than I knew how these last few years would play out. I do think that the general shape of a Christian life calls for a meaningful commitment to wherever it is you are living; even if you are only in a place for a season then you should expect to dedicate yourself to that place as much as possible during that season. I suspect that this sort of approach is what allowed Paul, Mediterranean migrant that he was, to plant so many fruitful churches (for more on this subject, see Christianity Rediscovered). However, there are any number of leadings, moral statutes, or circumstances which make any uniformity to some ideal of Christian living impossible: whether it is celibacy as a sexual minority, a chronic illness in yourself or a loved one, or the voice of God leading you to a far country, many of us have large boulders in our path that will point us in a particular direction no matter how much we might want to keep going straight.

The last few days and weeks have emphasized to me that somehow, we are simultaneously held dearly by so many people and yet sent out by them. At one of our farewell parties, I was going to order pizza for dinner and I had to explain to everyone present that they didn’t have to chip in because I was going to put in an expense report; everyone there was a donor who had already paid for their slice several times over. Someone asked me what I was feeling the most as we prepare to go– excitement, sadness, nervousness– and I had to say “Gratitude” because I am constantly confronted with how we have been shaped by the people we have loved and the institutions we have all been a part of. Particularly New Song.

The people of New Song came to our wedding and danced with us there as we were transitioning from suburban to urban living. The elders of the church anointed me with oil when I was sick, and I was healed. The congregation pledged to help me and Maggie raise Naomi and Leo as they were been baptized into the Body. When we go to South Sudan, we will not arrive disconnected from New Song. In some ways, we go as the church’s emissaries to meet the church there– and bring the joy of participating in global service back to them.

 

The way that we talk, listen, plan, discuss, share, lead, and submit as we learn to love our South Sudanese neighbors is bound to be affected by what we’ve experienced in Sandtown, which is just a particularly intense penumbra of influence among many others. Our families, our home churches, the places we’ve worked, even, yes, Twitter– the places we have come from and the people who have loved us have helped make us the people that we are. We will not just be taking the money of the people in that room who paid for their pizza in advance to South Sudan.

Furthermore, we can only see glimpses now of how this commitment will shape our friendships even further. The grief and sorrow of parting mixed with the frustration of trying to be present in Sandtown while preparing to move are immediately apparent, but even now we are getting to see the outpouring of generosity in the enormous effort to overcome the gravitational forces that usually keep people from moving to another continent. Even the songs that we share– the ones that make us break into sobs at the breakfast table– take on new meaning as we hear them and sing them to one another.

 

Will we come back? Lord willing, yes. We’ll have furloughs every few years (our first will happen about 2 years from now). It’s been a blessing to meet people who have been doing this for decades and see how their journeys have happened. Some even went out when they were my age, came back for reasons related to family or illness or a bend in the river, and are now going back again at a time when most their age are counting down to retirement. We don’t know what will bring us back– scheduled breaks, unscheduled tragedies– and yes, there exists the remote possibility that we might not come back (for more on how we’ve processed that, read here). Baltimore will remain our home base, the place we have been sent from and the place we’ll return to.

We’ll be renting our house to a faithful young couple who have chosen to relocate to Sandtown. We’ll still be paying taxes, voting, and dishing out cranky observations about the mismanagement of both. I recognize that what we have given to Baltimore and what we have received are what they are and both are bound to be constricted from the distance. The people of Baltimore and the people of Sandtown in particular have many needs to be met; the fact that we’ll be working in a place with far more dramatic life-and-death needs doesn’t negate that. Baltimore remains in our hearts, our prayers, and our way of life. Hopefully it is the same for some of you– we trust that God will raise up great leaders from within Sandtown and bring in great supporters from without.

The “check your privilege” instinct comes to mind. Whether they are trapped in one place or forced to be mobile, millions of people would love to have my problems. And perhaps one day they will. I don’t think there’s any other way for it to happen unless privileged people like me and their friends conspire together about how to divvy up their resources to send people to places in need and build up leaders in those places of need. I can spend a lot of time torturing myself about my privilege, but I’m a terrible judge of these things and have found that it’s more worthwhile to spend time building relationships with people who have the authority to check my privilege for me.

The most important person who has this authority is my wife, who you will hopefully get to read more of in the years to come. Our commitment has somehow become the gravitational center of so many other commitments even as our love in turn is held together by the grace and mercy of God. Maggie is eternally hospitable and draws in people in ways that I am simply unable to, using means that I am far too clumsy at, facilitating all of the work that I do in the hospital or the community with patience and generosity. Even our children– another one of those direction-changing boulders in the stream– draw other people in with their love in ways that I could not have ever expected but am so grateful for.

 

Together, we go because we have been loved since before the beginning of time by God and by so many people since before we were born. We have been shaped and prepared by love. We are sent out because we are being loved. Our friends and family are loving us as we go with their rib-crushing embrace followed a hearty push out, even as Christ draws to Jerusalem to kneel at His cross before going to the ends of the earth. We will be sustained for the years to come by the support and prayers of people who love us. Best of all, we all anticipate that the work we have been sent to do will one day be completed as definitively as it was started and our love will be made complete as we are reunited.

I’m looking forward to it.

 

What rush of hallelujahs on Canaan’s happy shore

What knitting severed friendship up where partings are no more

Then eyes with joy shall sparkle which brimmed with tears of late

Orphans no longer fatherless, nor widows desolate.

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2 thoughts on “Sandtown to South Sudan, Baltimore to Yei

  1. Pingback: Rain for Roots: Music That Teaches Us How to Wait for the Lord | Christ and Pop Culture

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