Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons at Smilin’ V Scout Ranch 

As a young father I always looked forward to taking my sons to the annual Father and Son Outing; a one night campout for fathers and their boys. They were a chance for me to spend quality time with my boys and for them to have fun in the outdoors. Friday and Saturday was the outing for the Shoal Creek Ward. This year I’m not with my two sons but Eileen said “there are lots of African boys who either don’t have fathers in their home, or their fathers work nights and they couldn’t be part of this event. Why don’t you take them?” So with Eileen’s encouragement I teamed up with Ward Mission Leader, Dave Morse and we took 7 boys to Smilin’ V Scout Ranch, about 30 miles away.

We had Daniel, Ricky, Chris, Zaire, Kiki, and newly baptized Joseph and Daniel. We took the food for dinner---basic outing food: hot dogs, Eileen’s potato salad, and stuff to make S’mores around the fire after dark. Dave picked up Joseph and Daniel because they live near him. I picked up the other 5 because they are all small and could fit in our small Honda. We hooked up at a location convenient for both of us and took off for the camp. About 30 minutes later we arrived.

The camp itself is rather unimpressive. There are no defined activity areas, it’s not well manicured, no fire ring or the usual features you expect to see in a Scout Camp. There was just a big pavilion with wood picnic tables and some grassy areas where we would eventually pitch our tents. But atmosphere had no effect on the boys because none of them had ever been camping before and they were sky high with excitement.

I’d envisioned that we would arrive at the camp, find a nice camp site, set up our camp and then let the boys go exploring while Dave and I got the hot dogs ready. But the vision faded rapidly as these mostly 8 to 10 year olds piled out of the car to begin their big adventure. In 2 seconds they were off exploring.

Under an oak tree they discovered 2 old paddle boats and the next thing I heard was the sound of one of the boats being dragged across gravel. I looked up to see 6 boys straining to pull this paddle boat across the road. I asked, “What are you going to do with the boat?” “We’re going to put it in the water.” Noticing there was no water in the direction they were going I asked, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to find out where the water is before you move the boat?” “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea!” they agreed as they looked around. In a flash they were off looking for the water and found the pond in the opposite direction from what they had pulling toward. Just a moment later they had the boat in the water and 5 of them were trying to figure out how to steer it and make it go without falling in the water. Let the fun begin!
Let's get on the water fellas!!

The boys paddled the boat around the small island in the middle of the pond, taking turns with the steering and pedaling. A few minutes later Kiki appeared at the edge of the pond.
Boys & Water go naturally together!
He saw the water, stripped down to his shorts and jumped in the water. It didn’t take long and almost all the boys were in the water, Dave was cooking the hot dogs and I was gettin’ hungry.

Zaire, Daniel, Ricky & Chris in their tent
The excitement among the boys was through the roof. When it was time to set up our tents they all pitched in and moved their tents to where they wanted to be. Then we went to the car and the boys got the blankets they had brought since none had a sleeping bag. The beauty of Texas is that it’s warm enough all night that you really don’t need much for warmth. They laid out their beds but it would be a long time before the boys would be ready for sleep. They devoured the hot dogs and most of the Eileen’s potato salad. Then we gathered around the campfire for S’mores and for the boys just did their natural boy thing---playing in the fire.

It was after 10:30 by the time we made our way from the fire to the tents, but once in the tents it would be a more than 3 hours before the boys could be calmed down and they drifted off to sleep, not to arise until about 9 the next morning. They were spending their first night ever in a tent and loving it.

Saturday morning they straggled from the tent after their late night. They loaded up breakfast tacos with bacon, eggs and salsa and wolfed them down before heading immediately to the boats and a little more swimming before we had to break down the tents, load up the car, police the camp for trash and head for home with the boys as excited at the end as they were at the beginning and wanting to know when they could do it again! 
Daniel and Kiki in the paddle boat


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Halloween to Christmas in Austin, Texas

Halloween to Christmas in Austin
We arrived in Austin just before Eileen's birthday. Spent our first week enjoying a surprise visit from daughters Liz and Emily and trying to learn our way around the city which is very confusing with crazy traffic 24/7. We did our best to keep Austin weird by adding to our famous graffiti wall.

We have spent most of our time trying to find the African members in Shoal Creek Ward. It is quite the challenge. Many in the same family have different last names. Many live outside the ward boundaries. Many have nonworking phone numbers. Others have moved to who knows where. Some do not speak English which makes getting work difficult. Others have visa issues so they can't work legally. Others have very little education and don't read or write well. So we have our work cut out for us.
Daniel and Ricky are two of our new friends from Liberia. They're cousins.
Christmas day was very quiet for us. Spent the morning relaxing, worked out at the gym, talked with family members for a few hours by the time we reached everyone. Had a great Christmas dinner with our Bishop's family. Barbecued briskit (this is Texas after all where barbecue is always in style).

Christmas night found us at Casa Marianella, a refugee shelter that invited us to their Christmas celebration. We had no idea what to expect but it was a great experience. We first met 3 men from Somalia. Then a guy from Ivory Coast. Another from Peru and his friend from Ethiopia. There was lots of food from various countries. We didn't know what much of it was but it was tasty! Soon they cranked up the African music and people started dancing in a big circle. It looked very tribal even though there were people from non-African countries and staff members and volunteers as well. It was lots of fun. And for mom the best part was when a woman from Somalia gave Eileen her tiny little boy to hold while she danced. The little guy went right to sleep and was snug as a bug in his little blanket.

Delicious food from many countries
We stood out from the crowd with our black name tags, my white shirt and tie and Eileen nicely dressed. People were curious to talk about us. A woman from Congo said she had been to our church before and wanted to come again. The man from Ethiopia was very proud that his country has a long history of Christianity. He asked me for a Book of Mormon so I went to the car and got him one. But perhaps the best thing was that we got to visit for several minutes with the Executive Director of Casa and even longer with their grant writer and development person. They both gave us lots of good information and no doubt we will be looking to them as a resource in the future. It was a great night and we felt very productive.
BFF's from 3 different countries!

Monday, May 9, 2016


I want to be an American!

Those of us who were born in the United States seldom think about what it means to be a citizen of the greatest nation on earth. We take our freedoms for granted. We never worry about a revolution, a military coupe, being driven from our home, tortured or worse. We travel freely and through our own efforts can raise ourselves up by our boot straps. We never question whether we will be able to get an education or practice our religion without fear. Americans who’ve never travelled beyond U.S. borders have never known anything else. But for the folks we work with life was much different until they came here. They came from places of turmoil, where personal safety was unknown, where families were often separated when they fled, where they grew up in a refugee camp with no school and the list goes on, where many who were allowed to immigrate were forced to leave a wife, husband or children behind. But the struggle wasn’t over when they landed on America’s shore. They may or may not have come with refugee or asylum status. Those with “status” can get a work permit, a social security card, may have a sponsor to help them. Those who arrived with a diplomatic or tourist visa have no status and cannot get a work permit, risk deportation when their visa expires or they commit even a minor violation of the law. They also risk physical harm and women especially may be preyed upon by human traffickers who’ll force them into either work or sex slavery. Texas we’re told is a trafficking hotbed because of the number of undocumented (illegal) immigrants here from all over the world.

Yet there is a common theme you can’t help but notice as you meet them. They all want to be citizens of The United States of America. They want to work hard and make their way; even if they have to work 2 low paying full time jobs  just to pay rent here in Austin. They want to educate their kids and themselves if possible. They want to live their lives in peace. But most of all they want to vote and be a full participant in American life. They are excited about the presidential election in November.

For those who went to school or grew up in an English speaking country the citizenship test is not as challenging as it is for those with no schooling or who have to learn English well enough to prepare for the exam. Those who’ve taken the citizenship test and passed it are proud of their accomplishment and proudly tell you that they’re a citizen. Those who don’t pass are determined to take it again until they do pass and there are several agencies in town that offer free citizenship classes. But some of those we work with can’t take the classes because of work or family obligations. So we are taking on the challenge in addition to helping people learn to read. It is such a challenge to keep up but it would be such a reward for us if we help even one person become able to call themselves an American!
Thousands of Liberians live in the U.S. like our friend above.

She hopes to be able to vote in November.