200 Colored Buttons and 4 Cans of Diet Coke

So, I live on the west side of Michigan – about 30 minutes from Lake Michigan. There’s a school on the other side of the state where an adoptive mom teaches – she has two children from Haiti and I consider her a friend.

When I was working for the orphanage, she asked me if I would come to their school and talk to their kids about Haiti and what it is like as part of their multi-cultural week. Obviously, I was very happy to – not only was it what I did for a living, but it was and is a passion of mine.

The day came, and I showed up with a small cooler and with 4 bags of various colored buttons. The teacher had 6 kids make sure that each of the approximately 160 students picked a button out of one of the bags before they sat down in the auditorium.

After introductions, I told them they were going to be participating and asked them all to stand up.

“If you have a black button, I need you to sit down. Right now.”

“Those of you who did not sit down, take a look around at your friends who are sitting down.”

“They died.”

“Before kindergarten. They never went to school.”

“You never got to play with them on the play ground. That many of the children in Haiti never live to the age of 5.”

Stunned silence…….

“Okay, moving on. If you have a blue button, please sit down.”

“You are alive, and most of you live until adulthood, but you never got more than a 5th grade education. You never got to learn the things that it really takes to hold down a steady job. You missed out on the “high school” years because you were hauling water or working in the fields and trying to figure out how to make enough of a living to put food on the table. Tonight. You aren’t worried about next week, you’re worried about tonight. Oh and you might have learned how to write your name, you might not have learned that skill.

“If you have a yellow button – please sit down. Congratulations, you “graduated” from middle school, but never any farther. Minimal wage manual labor jobs are in your future.”

At this point, approximately 80% of the students are sitting down. The students who are standing up are looking around at all of their friends who are sitting down and starting to feel uncomfortable. Why are they still standing?

“If you have a green button, please sit down. Yep, you guessed it. You got to go to high school, but you didn’t make it through. Graduation was not in your vocabulary and any time you apply for a job, you won’t be able to say you have a high school diploma.”

At this point, I asked them all to take a look around the auditorium. A minute (well, maybe 30 seconds) of silence as they all looked around and it sunk in that of the approximately 160 students who came into the auditorium, there were 4 still standing.

They had the red buttons.

That’s right four.

One over there.

One in the back.

One right in the middle of a really long row of friends.

and one sitting off to the side.

“If I did it right, all four of you have red buttons, correct?”

They all say yes or nod. Obviously feeling uncomfortable being the only four still standing in the auditorium.

“Come down front please.”

They slowly and reluctantly come down to the front and I meet them at the front edge of the stage. I hand them the small cooler that has been sitting next to the podium.

“Here, this is for you. You four are the entire graduating class. That’s right, out of all of these fellow students, out of all of those who died before they could even attend school, you achieved the statistically unachievable. You graduated from high school.”

“In some of the worst schools in America, it would be considered a tragedy if half of the students didn’t graduate. Less than 4% graduate on average in Haiti.”

“Open up, the cooler is for you. While I’m talking more about Haiti, have a seat right here in the front row, enjoy the Cokes, enjoy the candy bars. You earned it.”

Awkward silence…….

“Mr. Vanderwell, can we take these home instead? We feel really awkward eating these in front of our friends who have nothing.”

“And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the point of my time here and a little glimpse of what life is like in Haiti.”

I told them more about Haiti and about the orphanage, but I could have (and probably should have) ended it right there.

At that point, less than 4% of the students graduate from high school and the United States is a very short plane trip away and it doesn’t seem to bother us. What’s up with that?

I don’t know whether it bothered them more or bothered me more.

But I know I won’t forget the time I spent with those high schoolers. It’s been 6 years and the statistics might have changed a little bit, but very very little.

However, according to the current US administration, Haiti is doing very well and able to absorb an additional 60,000 people who would have to go back if the Temporary Protection Status is lifted.

Stay tuned – how does Gilligan fit into this?

Tom


Christian Reformed Church Statement on Forced Separation Policy

“We call on the U.S. administration to immediately end these unjust practices, and to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the values of family unity, humane treatment, and refuge for persons being persecuted. We also call on Congress to immediately act to reform our immigration system so that there are more, not fewer, opportunities for legal status and permanent protection for vulnerable immigrants. Finally, we encourage members of the CRCNA in the U.S. to keep this situation in their prayers, to educate themselves about issues facing immigrants, and to urge their lawmakers to enact laws that honor the blessings that immigrants bring to our country.

Speak up for families at the border today.

In Christ,

Steven Timmermans, Executive Director, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Colin P. Watson, Director of Ministries and Administration, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Carol Bremer-Bennett, Director, World Renew – United States, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Reginald Smith, Offices of Race Relations and Social Justice, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Kurt Selles, Director, Back to God Ministries International, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Zachary King, Director, Resonate Global Mission, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Jul Medenblik, President, Calvin Theological Seminary, Christian Reformed Church in North America

Source: CRCNA Statement on Forced Separation Policy | Article | Christian Reformed Church

Comfort Zone? Uh, yeah, I didn’t pack that…..

In June of 2003, my wife and I got on a plane in Miami bound for Port Au Prince, Haiti.

We forgot to pack our comfort zone. Left that back in Michigan.

Our intention at that point was to spend a week volunteering at an orphanage and eventually adopt from them.

I had never been in a third world country before.

I’m sure if I could come up with a list of the “firsts” from that week, it would be a very long list. Maybe some day I will write a book about that week and what it did to me.

But what I saw and what I heard and what I (insert all of the other senses here) made my heart hurt. Not my physical heart, but my emotional heart.

Our first full day there, I spent three hours helping the orphanage director’s husband rewire a Chevy Blazer that was donated by the US Military in 1994 when they left Haiti the last time. If we had been in the US, a 15 minute trip to an auto parts store would have solved the problem and then maybe 30 minutes to install the part. But the closest auto parts store was an hour and a half away and there was no guarantee, actually a pretty high probability, that they wouldn’t have the part that was needed.

If I had to narrow it down to the top three things that changed me, I’d say that our first trip to Haiti had three major impacts on my life:
• It stunned me that there was such poverty and struggle this close to middle class America and that most of the middle class in the United States didn’t even know that Haiti was less than a 2 hour flight from Miami.
• It bothered me that people in the United States didn’t seem to be bothered by the struggles of one of our neighboring countries.
• Holding a 20 month old baby who weighed 12 lbs (and I thought she was maybe 6 months old) made me realize how many children in our world struggle – many times struggle for their very lives. I was no longer comfortable with not doing anything about that.

That week in 2003 changed my life. I’ve often said, “If you can go to Haiti and spend a week (or at least more than 4 hours) and not come back a changed person, then I feel sorry for you.”

Comfort zone – many people in Haiti don’t know the term.

Comfort zone – many people in Haiti would LOVE to live there – but they can’t.

They can’t, because living in the comfort zone requires an education – (read the next post about that.)

They can’t because living in the comfort zone requires a job – and the last I heard, unemployment in Haiti was well over 60%.

They can’t because living in the comfort zone requires a certain amount of material wealth.

And they don’t have it. They might want it, but corruption, poverty, malnutrition and many other things keep them away from the comfort zone.

We’re going to be talking a good bit in the future about the things that keep people out of the comfort zone and what those of us in the comfort zone should think and do about it.

And also what being the ones in the comfort zone means to us.

But stay tuned, I’ve got a story to tell you about 200 high schoolers – coming up soon……

Tom


I Wish…..

That Today was just a “normal” Sunday.

I wish that we didn’t “have” to have a day to say thank you to the Dads who show up every day.

I wish that showing up was considered the norm and not an exception.

I wish that today wasn’t so hard for those whose Dads didn’t show up.

I wish that more Dads would show up for those whose Dads didn’t show up or can’t show up.

I wish that church didn’t feel that it needed to celebrate fathers in a way that often hurts those who don’t have a good father figure in their lives.

I wish that more Dads would admit that they don’t know everything.

I wish that more Dads would realize that it’s okay to not be okay – and it’s okay to admit it.

I wish more teenagers knew that their Dads want them to succeed.

I wish more teenagers knew that their Dads love them.

I wish there were less kids in foster care and orphan care wondering about their Dads.

I wish that nurses didn’t have to work on days like this because I wish there weren’t Dads whose children are in the hospital today.

I wish it wasn’t so hard for many to understand the God as Father image because of the strain in their relationship with their Dad.

I wish that I had had more than 53 years to spend with my Dad. 

I miss him.

But I’m glad that my children had anywhere from 14 to 31 years with their grandpa in their lives.

And I’m grateful for the time I’ve had to spend with him.

TJV

The Devil Isn’t Happy Tonight……

See, there’s this “kid” (yeah, I’m old enough to call someone in their 20’s a kid). He’s a preacher’s kid and a preacher’s grandkid.

He’s grown up “in the church” but his preacher dad wasn’t a stereotypical preacher. He planted a church – out west in this state called California. This kid grew up with a passion for others – a caring about those who are “the least of these.” While in college, this kid spent time living and working in places where he was in the minority. His passion for those who are in the minority has always been very evident.

While this kid was in college, he met a girl. Not just any girl, but a girl who shared his desire to make the world a better place. Not the easy life, not the simple life, but the life that God wants her to live.

Boy meets girl, before long, boy realized girl was someone special. Girl realized boy was someone special too. You know how those stories play out. This one did too.

Today, boy and girl went to church. In front of family and friends, they listened to a minister (who happened to be boy’s dad). Dad talked about what a special day this was because it was the blending of two stories. His story and her story became their story.

But it wasn’t really their story. It was God’s story. It is God’s story. It’s not a story about them, it’s a story where they play a role but God writes it.

The entire time at church revolved around that theme – that this wasn’t his story and her story, this is about what God’s up to in their lives. And as evidence that it’s God’s story, the time at church ended with a time of worship. No special music, a time spent worshipping God and reminding us all that God’s got this. All of this.

Tonight, Adam and Maddie said, “God, we’re going to join our stories and make them part of your story. God, we know that together, you can use us as part of your story.”

The devil isn’t happy tonight. Because there’s a team on God’s side. A team that together will do more to advance God’s story.

And that makes the devil a bit grumpy, don’t you think?

Adam and Maddie, thank you for blessing all of us with a time of worship and a focus that reminded all of us that God’s bigger than us but He’s also calling us all to be part of his story.

Uncle Tom is happy for you both and Maddie – welcome to the family.

TJV