Tuesday, November 12, 2013


The jungle has a stillness that only is broken with the sounds of roosters crowing or buzzing and creaking of the many serrangah (bugs) here.  I have come to love those sounds in the early morning and late evening.  This morning as I finished packing up my little room above the Church, I stopped to look out at the jungle.  Every morning the mist sits over the hills until the sun slowly burns it off.  It is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.  As I walked along the road to the internet office ducking around the bush that always seems to prick me, hopping across the marshy path after all the rain last night, and taking a last deep breath of the fragrant mango tree; that feeling of goodbye rushed over me.

I have never liked goodbyes.  I can never seem to come up with the right words to say, and always feel like I don't quite adequately convey my feelings.  Well, today is another goodbye. It's my last day here in Pagalungan and I am overcome with so many mixed emotions.  While I am excited to return back to Tenom and see my community there, it is hard to leave the people I have been with constantly the past couple weeks.  These people I have laughed with, danced with, cooked with, sang with, prayed with and even cried with.

And I think that part of my finds it a little cruel that I'm already having to face goodbyes. It's something that I don't think I considered.  I always imagined that at the end of my year, I would be facing this challenge, but not so early on.  It makes me think about how much I value the communities I have been a part of and how they have shaped me in so many ways.  I miss them.  I miss that time together with people and I miss my dear friends (badai-badai) in Pagalungan.  While there is always facebook, email, and phone; there is just something about being with people that is irreplaceable.

Please pray for the people of Pagalungan, Silungai and the surrounding area of Sepulot that have cared for me in so many ways.  Please also keep the Philippines in your prayers; while Malaysia has been blessed to not be directly affected; there is a large population here from the Philippines and so many of our communities will be affected by the losses of their loved ones their.

"Oh my English!"... "Oh my Malay!"... "Oh my Murut!"...or maybe just overwhelmed?

A few days ago we had a barbeque at the Church and I was yet again the guest of honor.  We spent the afternoon cooking.  Barbeque chicken wings, Umbus (a traditional Murut dish made with shredded greens and babi-pork), Milo crackers, rice, babi soup, and fried cakes stuffed with sweet black bean paste; it was a feast. The 'Oh my English!' Class sang a song dedicated to me and presented a cake frosted "Oh my English! We love U, Julia."  And yet again there was that feeling. That feeling of being overwhelmed by so much kindness.  It seems like a silly thing to wrestle with, but I have been struck with not knowing how to process...so much kindness.  I have been not only fed and cared for by these people, but I have also been loved by them.  At times I have been faced with not knowing how I could ever repay them in any way.  And that's I think it. It's not about "re-paying."  Maybe it's more about accepting and loving it for the beauty that it simply is.  Maybe it's about grace.  Being able to accept and receive grace in order to then share it.  I am reminded constantly of what grace is here. There is nothing I have ever done to deserve this grace, and there is nothing I can ever do to deserve it.  It's just there.  And so what I pray is that in turn I can share this gift of grace that has been poured out on me here.

Some of you might know "Grace Like Rain," it's a song that has become so dear to my heart after several summers at Rainbow.  And it's a song that my mind keeps returning to here.

"Grace Like Rain" Tod Agnew

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I'm found
Was blind, but now I see so clearly

Hallelujah, Grace like rain falls down on me
Hallelujah, all my stains are washed away
Are washed away

Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed

c/o 2
When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing Your praise
Than when we first begun

So my prayer for you is that you can have grace for yourself, for others, and for this big world that we live in.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Faith to wonder at the Change

Today marks my 8th day of teaching in the village of Pagalungang, an hour north of the Indonesian border and 5 hours from Tenom (2 spent on dirt roads, and 1 on a riverboat).  I arrived here on October 13 at noon, and at 2 I was teaching my first English class.  All of those expectations that I had mentioned, well I feel like they came and flew by me. The past week has been much of me 'hitting the ground running' (thanks Peter!).  I am teaching three classes a day: a morning class for women and youth, and afternoon class for kids, and an evening class for women and men.  While I always start with a lesson plan, more often than not, I have learned to just go with the flow.  My students are all at different levels of English and so more often than not, being able to adapt and retain attention spans has been something I've had to rely on.  If teaching colors leads to playing "I spy,"  which leads to singing "Head and shoulders, knees, and toes," well,  I just embrace it.  To be honest, I have struggled with the knowledge that I am not going to be able to teach them everything I want to in the time that I am here, but I hope and pray that I can teach them some. And a big shout out to teachers here-making learning fun and creative is challenging.  We start each class warming up by stretching our muscles: reaching to the right; touching our toes, standing on our right foot, etc.  Afterwards, we begin our main lesson (so far we have covered the alphabet, colors, size, and body), sing a couple of songs, and then always play games to end class.

The last two weeks have been very much about embracing change.  The weekend before I came here, I journeyed to Kota Kinabalu (KK) where I stayed with another YAGM while I got a filling in my front tooth.  (Btw I'm totally fine, just bit into a rather hard seed on accident.)  While staying there I was reminded by the people around me that this is a beautiful world we live in.  Jenna welcomed me with open arms, and an open closet (I forgot a few things).  We got to talk about our placements and some of the experiences we have been having that have left us struggling to find words.  To be able to just be with someone experiencing the same thing was something I didn't know how badly I needed. I also got to attend a bible study and worship service while there that spoke again to embracing our faith. It was incredible 13 year-olds were leading us in worship and rockin' it.  And the message that we heard about the blessing of hope in Christ seemed to be speaking to some of those restless thoughts I had been having. It seemed to me that I was getting filled before leaving on the journey.

But this care that I have received in Tenom and KK hasn't stopped.  Here in Pagalungang, there definitely exists a language barrier that I didn't account for, but it doesn't seem to matter.  The people are of the Indigenous Sabahan tribe, the Murut and speak Murut; Bahasa Melayu is their second language.  I started out knowing one word in Murut: "Makau," it means, "Go."  While it is a pretty good word to know, it sometimes left me lacking.  Fortunately, there are six women who have essentially adopted me.  They are all cousins: Kuja, Jus, Zaiton, Aryani, Goy, and Sofia...(I asked today how many cousins Kuja had and she said "lebih seratus"..."more than a hundred."  One big family.  They sleep in one of the rooms next to mine, they eat with me, they take me around the village, they teach me words in Murut, they laugh with me...they are my friends.  And last night while we we were cooking dinner, in the midst of laughter and giggles, I had that same feeling of being home as I did in Tenom, feeling love.

Peter asked us to read Genesis 12:1-6 as we reflected on our week.  God calls Abraham to leave his home and venture out to the land God promises him.  It is a huge change, and when I think about my last month here I feel in someways very much like Abraham.  I have always like to think of myself as someone who leaned in and embraced change.  I love the challenge of something new, meeting new people and learning.  These things are true, but something that I have realized this past month is how badly I want to be able to figure things out.  I want to be able to speak Malay, I want to 'start' at my placement.  I want to start having deep, meaningful conversations with people.  It's not to say that none of these things happened in Tenom during the first four weeks I was there, they just didn't happen in the ways that I expected them, too.  Ah expectations...so now I have been fighting the urge to "make sense" of my surroundings and just awe at the wonder of it all.  Like today, the fact that I had 41 little ones, ages 7 to 13 years, in my afternoon class, and the wonder that all of them played red light-green light and LOVED it.  How? I don't know; I think it was a God moment.  Or maybe the 5 ten-year old  boys clustered around my white board furiously copying down a stick-figure of the human body I had drawn.  God is here and is present with these people and I feel blessed to share this world, even for a short time, with them.  Faith to wonder is what I pray for, for you, and for me.

I also think it is a God moment that Pagalungang has internet...    

Taking that first step

My country coordinator recently had us watch a short clip called "Where the Hell is Matt?" http://vimeo.com/1211060  In it, Matthew Harding dances with people all around the world.  He has to start dancing before others will join....it's like that awkward moment at the start of high school dance where no one wants to be the first to start dancing, but you know that after someone starts it will be so much more fun.  Matt starts the dance.  

I have been in Malaysia now for over a month and in Tenom now for two weeks. Unlike many of the other YAGM I didn't start working right away. I feel like it has been a blessing in many ways that I have had time to truly settle: wander the town, practice my language skills, and communicate back home with people that I love and miss. Each day during my first week I walked into town, and while it may seem silly, every time I entered a shop and felt the eyes of all who were in that shop gravitate towards me, I could hear my heart pounding. I never was sure what would be in each shop, I had to go in to find out: to read labels, to see words, to make meaning out of a language that was foreign to me. Part of me dreaded, while another part hoped for a conversation to attempt at communicating. And while I faced this fear over and over, it was constantly washed away by either a friendly smile, a question of where I was from, or a wave goodbye. As I was browsing the cooking-ware, twelve-year old boy from Sabah Agricultural Park shuffled over next to me with a huge smile on his face, "Excuse me, Miss. Where are you from?" He was talking to me! I was so excited to meet someone (I think it's that feeling of being new in town and never having enough friends). And between my English and his Malay we were able to have a conversation. If I hadn't left my comfort zone, I never would have gotten the joy of talking with a kid who seemed to be so happy to talk with me. This happened in various forms in my adventures around Tenom; whether be at the market, in a restaurant, or even in another shop. More often than not I had to face that fear of taking the first step into the darkness and unknown and afterwards found a new friend, conversation, a laugh, or even a smile.

I haven't yet introduced you to some of the people here, and so today I would like my two families to meet. These are people who have made my first two weeks (now 4) in Tenom feel like I have been here for months. They have walked with me as I have learned to figure somethings out and also not figure out somethings out (and be okay in that).

Ester: Ester is one of my two housemates. She is 25 and a nurse at the clinic in Tenom. She is one hardworking gal and also one of the most kind people I know. She loves Korean dramas, plays the guitar, sings in the shower (very well), and also loves her chili sauce. Ester is the youth director at the Church and so its been fun to plan games with her and hear her messages during youth group. Ester's first language is Malay, and so I am constantly asking her a million questions and she faces them all with so much patience and earnest desire to understand me. We have spent many a night having a conversation with both our laptops set to google translate and while it sounds like it could be tiresome, it is amazing how satisfying it is when we do understand each other, especially when we are talking about religion, culture, or family, some conversations that I think are difficult to have in English. I feel like I am always learning around Ester; she is a natural teacher.

Thorothy: My other housemate. She is 22 and works for Pastor Lucy (my supervisor) and also helps with a lot of Church programming. She always has a smile on her face and is also always checking in with me. Thorothy loves to laugh and also loves to watch Korean dramas (they are really popular over here). On one of my first days here Thorothy told me that she loves to swim, and so later when we we were at the swimming pool I asked her why she was only hanging onto the wall. Thorothy doesn't know how to swim, but she stills loves being in the water and therefore loves swimming. When I think of myself I think of the things that I like and they are things that I am "good" at or things I think I can do. I don't tend to like the things that I am not good at. I spent the afternoon teaching her and a couple of kids at the pool how to doggie-paddle and float. Trickier than you would think in broken Malay-English! haha. I later found out that Thorothy almost drowned when she was younger; and yet she loves water and is excited at the idea of us all going to the pool. That's the thing about Thorothy; she chooses to meet things with joy and excitement.    

The past 4 weeks Ester, Thorothy and I have spent many a night cooking and baking; whether that be lentils, fish, chicken, pudding, cookies, even making our own teh-tarik. These nights have been some of my favorite nights as we take turns around the stove or on the cutting board and end around the table with full bellies and full hearts.

Julius and Ros: They are a husband wife team who own the restaurant beside the shop that Pastor Lucy and her family own and live above. I ordered roti canai and teh tarik one day and asked Julius a question about his restaurant, "Bismillah." We ended up talking for a couple hours. After that I came back almost every day. Julius will whip out a plate with some sort of fried pastry and some kopi-O as soon as he sees me, and then him and his wife sit next to me (my dictionary in hand) and we talk. I tell them about America, my family, and they tell me about Malaysia and their family. They help me with my Malay and I help them with their English. It's one of my favorite times of day-when I can sit and visit with Julius and Ros.

While my weekdays have largely been spent practicing my English, my weekends are devoted to Church activities. On Friday nights, we have prayer circles and either visit at a church member's house or meet at the BCCM Church in Tenom. Saturdays we have youth group in the evening and then on Sundays we have a morning service in Tenom and later have an afternoon service in Mensasoh, the village BCCM Tenom has a relationship with. I also have accompanied Auntie Helen to Mensasoh and Keningnau on other Church business; whether to visit someone in the hospital or prayer visits outside of Tenom. I may not have officially started at a worksite with a set schedule where I know what I am doing; I look back on the last four weeks and know that I have started to create relationships with people that I already care deeply about. These people have taken me under their wings and helped me to take that leap into the unknown. It has been in these moments of community that I have found renewment and fulfillment.

"Living,” said dancer/choreographer Agnes DeMille, “is a form of not being sure, of not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong. But we take leap after leap in the dark." I guess you have got to take that risk of being the first person to dance; maybe it will be a flop, but then maybe it will be something so special, it's hard to put into words.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Terima Kasih

Today, I journeyed out with several members of the Church, including my housemate, who were invited to a 100 day memorial of a teen who tragically drowned.  While it sounds like it would be a sad event, it was not in the least; celebration is the better word to describe it. And so we hopped aboard a very rickety train to visit the village not to far from Tenom.  The train ride itself was an incredible trip.  We traveled alongside the river Padas (literally means "hot" in temperature, and I am constantly using it to explain how "hot" I feel. Ha.), exclaimed at the darkness as we went through a couple tunnels, and remarked at the incredible scenery of river and jungle hills.  I wish I could describe the vibrancy of the green, but pictures, nor words seem to capture the color of this place.  We also passed alongside the Hydroelectric Pangi Dam (the only dam in all of Sabah), and I was amazed to hear that it is almost 40 years old, and provides a little less than half of all the energy in Sabah.  To think that I thought I was going to be in such a rural area...and in some ways I am, but my expectations that I had so falsely presumed had led me to a belief that was simply wrong; here is a place that has had hydroelectric power for almost half a century.  It was a humble reminder of yet again how little I know, yet pretend to know so much.  

And when we did finally arrive, it seemed as most of the train walked together along the rail road tracks to a house overlooking the river.  What a view!  I still cannot get over its berth and the sharp contrast it serves in comparison to the other rivers I have seen.  A warmer shade of chocolate milk is I think what comes to mind....so maybe hot cocoa?  Ha.  Regardless, it was, and is beautiful and I was enamored with it though out our time there.  Auntie Helen then prayed over breakfast, the first of two meals we would be having.  In Malaysia, if someone is older than you, you either refer to them as "Auntie" or "Uncle." I like to think of it as an extended family that just keeps growing as you meet more people :)  Who knew that there could be so much comfort in someone's address?

Food is big in Malaysia and so is the taste of manis (sweet).  Milo, kopi, and teh seem to be staples and for good reason.  Milo is very much like hot cocoa, but not as chocolatey, coffee is one of Tenom's specialties (there are 2 large factories in the area) and in Malaysia it is sweet coffee, and again, sweet Sabah tea.  We feasted upon some honey comb-looking fried honey pastry?, rice pastries, and boiled rice wrapped in a palm leaf (those who are gluten-intolerant come to Sabah-'the Land beneath the Rice' *cough* I mean 'Wind').  All truly delicious.

After a short message, Panas, a relative of Auntie Helen suggested we check out the hanging bridge "jumbataan gantung" over the river.  I don't think he realized just how happy he made me.  Yippee for exploring!  Camera in hand, off we went on a follow-the-leader like adventure across the kampung to the first, and then the second hanging bridge.  Definitely one of the cooler life moments I have had.  Our troope: 7 in size, all over the age of 17, suddenly became 7 year olds as we jumped up and down, ran, and giggled our way across.  And soon after came 3 aunties all wanting photos, shaking the bridge, and laughing, just like us.  Moments like those remind me of how connected we all are.  Something that we can all wonder at in an experience of sharing.  As we waved goodbye to the family, I felt warmth from not just the food in my belly, but of friendship and shared joy.  I felt a connection between the people around me and myself.  I wasn't just the "orang putih" who could only speak a couple sentences and words.  Today, I felt like I shared friendship with others and I feel incredibly blessed to be invited into those relationships.  Sirah, Ellie, and the many Aunties and Uncles who welcomed me with a smile, a conversation, a handshake, or yummy food, and drink, they are good people and I am thankful for them.  I am also thankful for you.

"Terima Kasih."  Thank you.  It is one of the first phrases I could actually say in Bahasa Melayu. Part of the reason for that is the constant use that it receives.  Whether it be someone handing over my groceries, a response from a wave, shout, or honk of greeting from the street, or the countless invitations of hospitality that I have already received, its literal translation is one that I cherish.  I receive your love.  It is not one-ended, it is an exchange between two rooted in a relationship.  What richness!  And that my dear friends and family is Malaysia.  So, I offer you now, "Terima kasih."  All of you have impacted my life in such a way that has brought me to this point today and I am so grateful for you.  It is because of you that I can love the people and place I am with and among.  So thank you for walking alongside me in this experience, one in which I hope to understand "love" a little bit more.

A dear friend who has become a huge support to me over the past several months sent me this scripture just before I arrived here.  Ever since it has been continually on my mind:
1 John 4: 7-8

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who knows love is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love God, does not know God, for God is

And a few photos...

The train we took to Pangi

The Padas River

On the hanging bridge with friends! 

The three aunties and me.  They live in a village known as Api Kampung-Fire Village.

Auntie Helen and Ester, my housemate eating some delicious food at the celebration.  

A close up of one of our plates-all traditional Dusun or Murut food.  Sabah has three Indigenous peoples: the Kadazan, the Dusun, and the Murut. All have their own language and separate traditions.

I am serving with the BCCM, a part of the Lutheran World Federation and this was a fundraiser banquet held to raise money for the new Church in Keningnau where a fellow YAGM is serving.  We watched traditional dances, enjoyed good food, and played in a raffle where my housemates and I won an electric oven.  From top left: Thorothy, Auntie Silvia, Gloria, Oleh, Ester, Me, and Bung. Thorothy and Ester are my two housemates.

A dinner that the housemates and I prepared with a newly acquired oven.  Greens that Ester loves, eggplant, guava, and fish from the local market. Not a lot of people use ovens around here, and so baking is left to the bakeries.  Brownies may or may not be in the works.

View overlooking all of Tenom.  Ester and I just finished a "wog" up the local hill. Tenom is considered one of the most fertile valleys of Sabah.

One of my favorite spots in Tenom.  This is the park not too far from the Theodora house; and you can also see the mosque peeking out from the right from where we hear the daily call to prayer.

"Synchronized swimming or Badminton?"
Malaysia is known for its competitive Badminton players, and so of course Tenom has courts.  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Body

Forgive me, it’s been awhile.  Our first week was a riddle of adjusting to the newness of everything from jet lag, to the streets of KK, the heat and humidity (4 degrees north of the equator gets a little sweaty), and finally settling into our own country group.  We retreated to the base of Mt. Kinabalu where we spent a few days reading up on Malaysia and also just being

For instance, Malaysia has oil reserves of 3 billion barrels making it one of the most prosperous (and also tech-savvy) countries in the world.  At the same time Malaysia is a very diverse nation.  In The 10th Parallel Eliza Griswold identifies that out of a 100 Malaysians, 60 are Muslim, twenty are Buddhist, nine are Christian, six are Hindus, and the remaining four follow either Chinese beliefs or practice their Indigenous, spirit based religion.  

It is something that I have never experienced before.  What does it mean to be Christian in a diverse religious environment in which belief systems are intersecting one another?  We were blessed to attend the recent Lutheran Church of Malaysia's General Assembly where I experienced my first bi-lingual service in English and Mandarin.  Hearing my voice within the blend of Mandarin and English as I spoke the words of Confession and the Lord's Prayer struck me as to the greatness of this body that we are a part of.  
The whole Malaysian crew from left to right: Sarah, Daniel, Katrina, Peter (our Country coordinator), Colleen, Delia, me, Evan, Jenna B., and Sean hanging in front of the entrance to Mt. Kinabalu National Park, a World Heritage Site with a complex of trails navigating the jungles beneath its ridges.  The peak sits at 13,435 feet and exists as the 20th highest peak in the world in topographic prominence.
Sabah Theological Seminary where we spent our first week in Kota Kinabalu (KK)

Hiking through the lush jungle of Mt. Kinabalu National Park

Malaysians also know how to eat well.  We have been enjoying delicious food on both the East and West side. Here is some yummy nasi dan terung bawang putih (rice and garlic eggplant)

At present we have been staying at the YMCA in Kuala Lumpur in the Brickfields neighborhood while we take our Bahasa Malaysia course.  In the midst of a constantly changing environment the past few weeks, I have found myself not quite knowing what I need, but taking faith that its alright to be in that.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Orientation has come and gone.  I feel so ready and so completely unready all at the same time.  Ready to finally embark on this journey that had been the vision of the last 2 years, but still wondering how I will even begin to figure out what accompaniment, God's mission, solidarity, and the several other values that I now hold so dearly to my heart look like on the ground.  

We hop on a shuttle to the Chicago O'Hare airport at 6am to board a flight headed to Seoul, South Korea before landing in Kota Kinabalu on the 23rd.  One week of Orientation in KK and then we are off to the big city of Kuala Lumpur for 2 weeks of intensive Malay language classes.  Tonight I go to bed filled with the blessings that this week has been and the support of the loving communities who have stood alongside me through my life.  Thank you for filling me.  

This past week we heard so many inspiring words it is hard to share just a few, but these particularly struck me.   

“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn't it?

It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.

I want to repeat one word for you:

Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn't it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don't worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.”  Donald Miller

Kota Kinabalu is the capital of the state of Sabah (on the island of Borneo to the East), which is where I will be spending my year.