Friday, December 23, 2016

New Job

Today, I accepted a job with the Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.  I will be the On-Site Specialty Services Advocate.  That means I will be working with clients who don't speak English as their first language.  The job will also involve outreach to immigrant communities so that they know the services offered and education against domestic violence.  I look forward to starting sometime in January.

I will not be continuing this blog.  Thanks so much for following me and my work over the last four years.  

Merry Christmas. 
Work for peace in 2017

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Settling in a Changing, Unsettling World

2016 Year in Review
Settling in a Changing, Unsettling World
Susan Smith, Pittsburgh, PA

My desire for most of 2016 has been to find a more settled life that is meaningful – well, and to hold onto relationships while generating new ones.
I spent the first five months of 2016 living in Garoua Boulai, Cameroon continuing my work with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Central African Republic.  This included the partners’ consultation in GB with Central Africans and representatives of partner agencies from Europe and the USA. 
I travelled to the CAR a couple of times.  Just after the partners’ meeting Jakelle, Willie and I spent four days there and then I went to Bouar and Bohong for the first youth gathering in five years.  Both trips went well.
In June and July, I travelled to North Dakota, Texas, Louisiana, Chicago and Ohio as a part of my Home Assignment travels.  This included the Summer Missionary Conference.
For four months, I stayed with a generous friend Beth Siefert in East Carnegie in Pittsburgh; I am glad to have had the time for conversation and getting to know her better. From there I also travelled to Mechanicsburg (central PA) to see Mom and help her clean out her storage locker.  I also visited Philadelphia to see my sister and her family, San Diego to see my brother and his family, and Los Angeles to see my other brother.  So, in one month (November) I got to see all my family – just not all at the same time and place!
I had wanted to find a job so that I could find a place to live nearby, but time went on and the job situation was still unsettled.  So, I decided to move into an apartment in my old neighborhood – Friendship, in the East End of Pittsburgh – before winter set in.  December 2, I emptied my storage locker.  Unpacking things from 4 ½ years ago was sometimes like an early Christmas although I used the time to give away things that I decided I would be unlikely to use in the future. 
This is a lovely apartment with bedroom, living room, office, kitchen, and bathroom has four nonfunctional fireplaces although central heating for the cold winters here.  Ironically, I had only one fireplace in Garoua Boulai (in the tropics) but it worked.  I have decorated this place with a mixture of Central Africa/Cameroon, Pittsburgh, and other places I have visited.  Some things made the transfer from GB to Pittsburgh.  I also found places for going away presents. 
In November I started volunteering at Casa San Jose, an NGO that works with Hispanics in this area.  I enjoy speaking Spanish again.  I have also started attending my home church, East Liberty Lutheran Church again.  And, it was hardly a surprise that I was elected to the church council at the annual congregational meeting. 
As I said, my priority was to find a job so that I could find a place to live nearby.  That didn’t happen but God is watching out for me.  This week I have a second interview at a place within walking distance from my new apartment!  I don’t want to jump the gun and name the place, but it looks likely that I will have a new job come January.  It is just the kind of thing I have been looking for – using educational skills, knowledge of languages and culture, and providing service to others and meaning for my life.  
I am dismayed by the increasing polarization in the world and the USA.  I will work to inform myself, be open to the beliefs of others to better understand them and decrease antagonism.  We are in for more rough times.  May each of you do your piece to make the world a better place. 
May 2017 bring you challenges and peace.
Merry Christmas

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Living in Community

Changing towns and places where I am staying is a great advantage when you are taking daily walks!  You get to know lots of different neighborhoods!  This week I have been with my sister and her family in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.  Several things have really impressed me.
First, thing I noticed is the number of huge murals that have been painted on buildings.  I saw one painted in 2003 and another from 2016 with a bunch created in the years in between.  Also, many of them reflect local themes/people and are done by local people through the Mural Art Project.  Here are only a couple of examples.  One near the PA School for the Deaf has people who are signing.  Another represents famous women from Germantown; probably the person best known outside of this neighborhood is Louisa May Alcott who lived in the area from 1830-34. (There is another sign with some history near where her house stood.)  The third show scenes of growing up in the neighborhood.  Aren’t these lovely?  Come walk with me and discover a bunch more!

The next thing I notice on my walk is the amount of green.  There are trees and parks galore.  Pittsburgh also has lots of parks and parklets.  I love it – and it is healthy for us all, too.  Here is part of Vernon Park which includes a pole advocating for peace in four languages.

Another fact that amazes me is the number of churches!  There are the huge stone buildings (and often a couple in the same block) which represent major protestant denominations: Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist (and probably Catholic, too, but I haven’t noticed them).  Quakers (Society of Friends) are well represented too, with their meeting houses and schools.  Then there are the less-known Christian denominations who have taken over big buildings or who operate out of store fronts like the one pictured here. 

The sheer number of churches and denominations has me thinking about an interesting book I have been reading lately: The Nearly Infallible History of Christianity by Nick Page.  Yes, the title attracted me and he uses a lot of humor as he writes – you can tell from the subtitle!  I am up to the 700s AD.  I am amazed by   Many theologians and their followers have been named heretics now, but there were MANY.  It is almost like one of those jokes that there ever there are 3 Christians, you will have 4 theologies.  Why can’t we agree?  Why can’t we hear God’s call and work together? (Even if we don’t agree on exactly how to understand and interpret what Christ said and did?)  What must we do, today, to find ways to hear those of other beliefs (whether Christian or not) so that we can live in peace on this earth?
the number of divisions there were among early Christians – maybe even more when there was only the “Catholic” church than there are now.

The last observation for today is the amount of trash (litter) on the ground.  It is worse on some block   I know many shopkeepers and home owners try to keep it picked up.  It is part of the culture, evidently, for some (many?) to throw trash anywhere and let someone else worry about picking it up (or not worrying if no one does).  This was true (or worse) in Garoua Boulai, Cameroon.  I asked a shopkeeper there about it once as he threw litter on the ground in front of his own store.  He said, “I clean it up once a day.”  In Philadelphia (and other US cities) it is even worse, in my opinion, because the cities provide trash cans at regular intervals!  Why do we create ugliness and damage the environment?  Often I pick up litter leaving the place cleaner than before I passed by, but the task is too big for one person.  Am I too picky?  Behind the times?   Or, how do we communicate the desire for litter-free streets to the majority?
than others.

We find many ways to live harmoniously in community.  This entry talks about a few.  What can you (and I) do to make things better?  We may differ in our approaches, but we can all have a positive impact. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Service of Thanksgiving

I talked to NGBOKO David, former mayor of Baboua, today.  If you remember he, the sous-prefet, and an apostolic pastor were held hostage for one year and three days; they were released in July 2016.  He told me today that there will be a special service of Thanksgiving in Baboua this Sunday, September 4, 2016.  Many people will be there from all Christian groups (Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, etc.)  I didn’t think to ask, but my guess the Muslims will attend as well.  Also planning to attend are government officials, those from MINUSCA (the UN peace-keeping force) and other notables. 

I promised to pass the news along to you all with a request that you also send up prayers of thanksgiving on Sunday during your liturgies.  We are grateful that these three men were safely released as were the Cameroonian hostages who were held by others.  We are glad that they are in good health generally (even though they lost weight during the long ordeal).

I had previously asked David if he wanted to continue being mayor of Baboua.  He said he thought not at this time.  I also asked about his back salary (which was not paid to him or his family while he was hostage) and he said they are working to get that to him.

Here is a picture I got of NGBOOKO David, taken early in August.  I know you join me in wishing all of the hostages healing so that they can return to a productive life with their families and communities.  Thank you for all the prayers in support of this sign of peace and healing in the Central African Republic.

P.S.  I am currently in Philadelphia, PA visiting my sister and her family.  I am slowly continuing to “network” as I search for a job.  Nothing yet. Next week I will be with Mom again and a brother who is coming from Los Angeles.  Still unsettled, but happy to be with family.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tension – In but not of the world

Maybe it is because I am still unsettled t
hat I spend so much time thinking about connections – ways that what I am doing right now are like things I did and saw in Cameroon/CAR; my faith and what is happening around the USA and the world; or what work I might be doing and ways that might connect to what I have done in the past.

I am very disturbed by the social climate in the USA that is reflected in the current political campaign.  During all of my voting live, politicians have smeared each other with dirt to make themselves look better.  Some voters have held strongly opposing views that they have used to make decisions about candidates and to try to convince others to vote (think, believe…) as they do.  But it is getting worse. 

Neither “side” in a political “discussion” listens to the other.  Rarely can there be a civil debate of issues.  Personalities are immediately drawn in; mudslinging begins – based on looks and personality mostly.  I understand the many factors that contribute to this situation.  The internet has made it much easier for people to find others who think like them, but in interacting only (or mostly) with those who hold similar views, views are being pushed away from the center and further toward extremes.  From there it is even harder than before to connect with someone who is different – whether that difference is skin color, religion, or just a belief about ways to solve one of the many problems that confront us.

People, especially those of the working class are not doing well economically.  They resent that jobs have gone and are going overseas or to those who are willing to work for much less pay (not even a living wage, really).  I have heard it said that this is the first generation in which the children can’t expect to do better than their parents – and maybe not even as well.

Many students have completed college degrees with huge debt and few job prospects.  They are ready to start careers and, hopefully, work to solve some aspect of a problem, but can’t get work.  Or work below their skill level.

Global climate change is getting worse, but there are those who still refuse to “believe” it is “real.”  Is a fact any less true if some people don’t believe it??  I found out this week that Pennsylvania, my state, would be ranked as the 17th worst polluting country if it were a country: Coal mining, fracking, methane from dairy cows…  What I am I doing to change this?  Even in a personal way?  We can’t just eliminate all use of coal without alternative work for those in the industry.  I watched what happened to Pittsburgh in the 1980s when steel left.  It was disastrous for many and still has many lasting effects.  We are not part of the Rust Belt for no reason. 

Violence is the world is increasing.  Look at the number of shootings in the US, Syria, Nigeria, the Extreme North in Cameroon, Central African Republic, and gangs in Central America.  It is not wonder that the number of people fleeing their homes is increasing. According to the International Organization of Migration, “There are 65 million people displaced worldwide. An unprecedented number of people are being forced to migrate to escape war, poverty, the impact of climate change and persecution.”

During the Summer Olympics, we should be better able to focus on what brings us together – and that has happened to some extent, but look at the problems.  Reporting in the US that focuses on women’s looks and men’s achievements.  Continuing evidence of racial discrimination.  Little reporting on the problems in Rio that surround the Olympics: people in favelas (slums) who are moved, detained, etc.  Then there is Ryan Lochte and three of his U.S. Olympic teammates who said they were mugged but whose stories don’t match the videos found in investigating the incident.  Why would they lie?  Did it happen?  Why has this become such big news when the innumerable other muggings in Rio are not mentioned? 

Then, I think about the situation in CAR.  Yes, they have a new president.  Yes, there is more security and many are able to work safely again in their fields.  But there are still pockets of violence, especially in Bangui, the capital.  And, age-old conflicts, such as those between herders (with their “free-range” animals) and farmers, tend toward violence, bloodshed, and death now that many more have weapons and tensions among groups are running high.  Vengeance is also an integral part of most ethnic group cultures.  Who will risk going against the norms to seek peace and love his/her neighbor? 

Most of these items I have mentioned make us afraid.  Legitimately so in many cases.  Fear is the emotion that helps us protect ourselves and our loved ones.  It is real and it is sometimes necessary, but what a toll it takes on our bodies and our connections with others. 

OK.  I actually started this entry with the intent to be positive!  So far, it sure hasn’t been.  I know you could add to this litany of tensions as you consider your neighborhood and corner of the world.  Tensions abound!

When I consider this world and my place (and role) in it, I often think of Jesus’s prayer recorded in John 17:15-16: “I am not asking that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

What does that mean?  I believe that we are called to see, hear, and pay attention to the world around us – especially the ways that its horrors affect us and our neighbors.  We must, though, react differently.  We must not hate as others do.  We must not let our fears – legitimate as they are – close us off from others.  We are called to follow Jesus and his examples while he was on earth.  We are called to love others as we love ourselves.  We live in this world – in our neighborhood, state, and country – we don’t chose to become hermits and withdraw from it.  On the other hand, we pray (as Jesus did) to be kept from the evil one.  We seek to represent part of Christ’s kingdom here on this earth were we currently are.

Courage is not the absence of fear but comes from actions taken in spite of that fear. 

I have a few suggestions of that I think being in, but not of, this world means for me here, today, in this place where I am.
  • Refuse to listen to inflammatory news and commentary – on the television, radio, and from even from those around us.  We can turn off the set, walk out of the room (politely), or hit mute for a time. 
  • Seek at least one person a day to talk to who is not someone you would normally interact with.  It could be a short conversation with a clerk in a store, a phone call to someone (perhaps someone you have heard is ill or has had an accident (why not show some concern for his/her wellbeing?) or an email (maybe to congratulate someone or wish them well as they start a new venture). 
  • Focus on connections rather than things that divide us.  You don’t agree with someone’s political views?  OK, but maybe you like the same music or activity.  We must talk about candidates to be informed voters and to help the country move forward, but we don’t have to get angry (or verbally abusive) when someone doesn’t accept our point of view.  Why can’t the last part of every interaction be positive so that we don’t dread the next time we see that person – and they don’t dread meeting us again?
  • When you see someone you don’t know (on the street or in a store), mentally name three (or more) things that you like about them and another three (or more) things you have in common.  I believe very strongly that we cannot love our neighbor if we see them as the “other” or “strange.”  Yes, they are different, but they are also similar.  If everyone focused on the similarities, there would be less fear and more working together.
  • Greet everyone you meet on the street.  This is a habit I developed in Garoua Boulai where I also tried to greet each person in his/her own language.  We don’t often have to consider language here, but say hello; acknowledge him/her.  Make a connection even if it is only for two seconds.  We all like to be noticed and appreciated.  Brighten someone else’s day. 
  • Pray about the world around you.  Don’t just ask for change and a better place, but make that prayer time include silence when you listen for what you are called to do to show God’s love.  

If we all stretch our heart muscles to love our neighbors, things will get better.  Fear will abate.  We will naturally become less destructive and more connected.  Then, with these increased connections
we can find solutions to the overwhelming problems that face us, individually and collectively.

Thursday, August 4, 2016


So, I am back in Pennsylvania, staying with a friend in East Carnegie (a part of Pittsburgh).  Am I settled into my life here?  Far from it!

After finishing two months of traveling to tell the EELRCA and CAR story, I have now started networking to find what I will be doing next. (More on that another time.)  A huge thank you to all who supported me in my home assignment travels and who offered all kinds of hospitality!

What I have noticed is that the US is vast and diverse!  (Not really news there, right?) But somehow it is also the same.  I have been thinking a lot about Wilton, ND as I have taken my morning walks in East Carnegie.  Both are small towns – but with big differences.  I can walk all around both places in an hour – going up and down the streets. Both are near the railroad.  Both are pretty little areas where people will greet a stranger walking down the street early in the morning.

OK, East Carnegie is really a part of Pittsburgh, but it is tucked into a little space between highways, some industrial complexes, and other neighborhoods, so it feels like a small town.  I looked up the population online for both places and found 726 for Wilton and 546 for East Carnegie.  Streets are much narrower here and there is much less yard around houses.  Many streets are now dead ends – cut off when the highway or other road was built – or when the road got to the stream.   Isn’t it interesting how our brains (or at least mine!) are always looking for connections?  To compare what is happening/being seen here with something from the past?  Fascinating.  I do compare this town to Garoua Boulai, too, but much less because it is so different.

Speaking of fascinations: clouds and rain storms still intrigue me.  Here is the rain approaching – taken from the porch of the house where I am staying.  Just after that, I had to go inside when the rain started in earnest and came at such an angle that the porch roof was no protection!

Here are some other things I have noticed as I get re-settled in the US.  Lots of places have planes that fly overhead.  This picture is from a walk near O’Hare Airport in Chicago, but they fly overhead   in East Carnegie, too (just not quite so low).There are lots of signs telling us what to do in the US, too.  That assumes a literate culture and money to develop this infrastructure. 
Road are generally wider in the US with lots of lanes and traffic.  On the other hand, Pittsburgh has many hills with VERY narrow streets.  I have been on a few where I didn’t think it was wide enough for my car.  It was paved or I might have thought I was in CAR!  Here, too, there are some very steep roads where you get to an edge and feel like you will drive off a cliff, but after a few more feet you see that you are just starting on one of the almost vertical streets.  Some streets here are also steps. (That is, the street name continues, but only pedestrians can continue on the stairs up/down a hill.)  The GPS has told me a couple of times to turn right there were was no street – once there were some of these steps. 

So to go back to the original question?  Am I settled?  No.  Walking helps me reintegrate in my US world.  Networking is helping me think about what I will be doing next.  I am still traveling around – staying with a friend here, about to go to Linn Run State Park (near Ligonier, PA) to stay at a cottage with a friend for an early weekend, and then headed to Mechanicsburg (near Harrisburg) to visit Mom for awhile. 

I look forward to a street address and meaningful work.  I’ll keep you posted!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Living – Inside our Out?

People ask me how I am adjusting to being back in the USA.  The question makes me think about the ways we choose to live with the environment.  Do you live inside or outside?
(By the way, the nature pictures with this entry show the Central African Republic, Cameroon and places I have visited recently in the USA: North Dakota, Texas, and Louisiana.  Can you tell which is which?)

I Cameroon/CAR most people live outside.  Yes, they have houses, but most use them principally for sleeping.  OK, many also have a living room with a TV that they use some of the time, but it is usually hot in there.  Windows are small.  (Central Africans told me they prefer them that way since it’s harder for thieves to get in.)  There is no air conditioning and generally no fans (since electricity is rare in CAR).  So, much of the time, people live outside. 

Usually, women cool outside over wood fires.  People sit outside in the shade – to visit with others, braid hair, eat, rest, etc. 

CAR is a community-oriented culture in which relationships are   (Relationships are important in the US, too, but individual concerns/wishes/desires often take precedent over the community.)  Being outside encourages relationships and interactions.  People will stop to chat as they pass by and see others outside their homes.  No doubt, these are social interactions, but work goals are also advanced. 

Do people spend more time outside, visible to the community, because it facilitates maintaining relationships or has the maintenance of relationships increased because people are often outside?  (Which comes first, the chicken or the egg??) 

Many people there spend more time outside, too, because they cultivate fields – even those with “desk” jobs since those may not pay well or regularly.  Most people also get where they are going on foot leading to more time outside.  There are a lot of motorcycles taxis and some have cars/trucks, but garages are rare so they can’t go into the house from the garage – adding at least a little “outside” time.  They also play volleyball and soccer outside, but overall there is less leisure time in CAR.

As you read this, have you been comparing it to what is often the reality in the USA?  Generally, we live inside.  Let me acknowledge, upfront, that many people in the US go outside for picnics, sports, walks, swimming, etc.  And, people, in general,   have more leisure time to engage in these activities.  Still, we most often cook inside, work inside, watch TV and play video games inside, etc. 

Living inside makes sense in the winder in cold regions when heat is essential to stay alive.  But many also prefer to be inside air conditioning in hot weather.  (In fact, many in the US say they “need” AC and couldn’t live without it.  But it wasn’t so long ago that there was no air conditioning and people did survive.  I think too many people confuse needs and wants…)  Then, we travel most everywhere by car/truck (which is also air conditioned).  Many can get into and out of the car to go into the house without being outside as they have attached garages. 

I find myself living in both worlds.  I am perfectly comfortable living and working inside but prefer the windows and doors be open.  That means I prefer big windows (that actually open) that let in sunlight and the breeze.  Considering these preferences, my house in Garoua Boulai was perfect.  Doors (with lockable screen doors) on two sides, large windows that open (with screens to keep the bugs out) and a great cross-breeze.  I was more likely to sit outside on the porch than on a mat in the shade, but seeing a computer screen outside is difficult so I generally worked inside.  In GB, I often walked to get where I was going, but had a truck to use, too.  And, since I am back, I am often cold in air conditioning.  Some have exhorted me to carry a sweater all the time – but this is summer!  Why should I need to?  Why can’t there be more moderation?

How do these approaches (living inside or outside) affect environmental issues and global climate change?  I don’t know.  I see major problems with both.  Cooking over wood fires can’t be good – you have to cut the wood from somewhere and then the smoke goes into the air.  It is also not an efficient heating/cooking system.  But, to use propane (which is cheaper in the long run) you have to be able to pay money upfront for the compressed energy instead of a little every day – this is a problem for many, and not only because it involves planning ahead.  Then, too you have to buy a stove, another big, upfront cost.  (And, what are the environmental costs for producing the gas and getting it into the bottle?)

Constantly controlling indoor temperatures in the US has an enormous energy cost.  Why do many demand lower, colder temperatures inside in the summer than they will accept in the winter – inside or out?  Why do we condition the air when the outside temperatures are the temperatures we seek? (OK, that doesn’t apply currently in places like Houston where it goes “down” to 82 degrees at night…)  In some “modern” buildings you can’t even open windows; the buildings are designed that way.  I wonder, too, about always cutting ourselves off from nature; do we end up paying less attention and, therefore, using resources more quickly or carelessly? 

And none of these considerations address the resources we use to power computers, telephone, and internet!  But, let’s leave that issue for another day.

I don’t have any answers, but since I have been back and traveling around to talk about my work I have often felt isolated from the natural world around me (once even when I was at a church camp - in air-conditioned building!)  If we are to be good stewards of this world I believe we need to be paying more attention to nature and ways our everyday actions impact God’s creation.

What do you think?