Standing Firm – Nteka’s Story

1 Corinthians 16:13 (NIV): Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Do everything in love.

My family went to Botswana to live in 1966, the year the country became independent. At the time it was the 3rd poorest country in the world. My mother was a doctor at the hospital in Serowe, and my dad worked at the secondary school. Although Serowe seemed like a small dusty village, it was actually the tribal headquarters of the Bamangwato tribe, ancestral home of Botswana’s first president, Seretse Khama. It had to be an important village to have a secondary school and a hospital!

Although Botswana was poor, and life on the edge of the Kalahari desert was marginal, this new country sought to provide free education for everyone and free healthcare for all.

One day a young girl was brought to the hospital where my mother worked. This was Nteka. She was eleven, and she and her family had never had the money to send her to school. Yes, school was free, but families still had to provide a school uniform and a few basic supplies. Nteka’s family didn’t have the money to pay.

Nteka was determined to go to school, and she went on a hunger strike. She refused to eat until she could go to school. When her body began to fail, she was brought to the hospital, and my mother was one of her doctors.

My mother was so impressed by Nteka’s determination that she committed to standing firm with her and ensure that Nteka could go to school. It wasn’t as simple as buying the uniform and supplies. The local school in Thabala, Nteka’s village, didn’t have the resources to start an eleven-year old in Standard 1.

My mother, knowing that Nteka’s life was on the line, went looking elsewhere. The secondary school my father taught at was somewhat experimental, and its local primary school was staffed by Peace Corps volunteers, many of them Quakers and Mennonites. A few of the teachers were idealistic and enthusiastic and intrigued by the idea of teaching a child whose desire to learn was that strong. But this school in Serowe was a long way from Nteka’s home village.

My parents decided that we would offer to be a foster family for Nteka during the school year, but they wanted to be careful not to replace her parents or complicate her home family dynamics. When school was not in session, Nteka would be back with her family in Thabala.

After my parents had worked out this proposal, they went to Nteka’s parents, who said, “Thank you, but no.” They explained that Nteka was too old, and besides, she was a girl. “If you are willing to help one of our children go to school, it must be the younger boy, Keletso, who was only seven.”

* * * * *

As my parents told me this story over the years, they explained this as plain sexism. I imagine that was something my mother had experienced as a woman and a doctor in the 1960s.

As I think about this story today, I think it’s probably a little more complicated for this economically deprived family.

The economic reality of Botswana in those days was that a retirement plan consisted of having a son to provide for them in their old age. A woman couldn’t be a provider in the 60s, so it would make more sense to educate their son.

Secondly, unmarried women were a financial asset to their families. Unlike in some countries in South East Asia where families must pay a dowry in order for their daughters to marry, Sub Saharan Africa tended to have the payment go the other way. In Botswana, a groom must pay lobola, or a bride price to the brides’ parents. So Nteka constituted a financial asset to her parents, whom they couldn’t easily afford to send away.

And finally, Nteka would only be an asset as an unmarried and childless daughter. They must have had their concerns about sending an eleven year old girl to live in the home of this white man and woman, about whom they knew nothing. Would she really be safe and respected?

* * * * *

There they were, Nteka’s parents and mine. I don’t know exactly what was said with words or silently, but ultimately my parents looked at each other and said, “If we’re taking in one child, we may as well take two…” And Nteka’s parents agreed that if Keletso also came along, Nteka could come and live with us while she went to school.

Nteka and Keletso came to live with us when I was one, and they were my big sister and big brother.

I want to be sure you know that this isn’t a story of a white family parachuting in to save a young black girl. This is a story about Nteka standing firm to learn to read and write, and she got an education, enough to be independent and have an income. Her persistence changed the trajectory of her life and Keletso’s. Keletso died very young, sadly, and Nteka ended up being the one to provide for her parents in their old age. My sister Nteka changed my life. She was a remarkable woman.


Questions re American Exceptionalism

These questions arose for me after reading the God’s Politics story recently about white evangelicals believing in American exceptionalism.

To my evangelical friends, I’m hoping you can teach me a little more about a couple of things.

Firstly, growing up as I did in Norway, the idea that the USA is favored in some special way is new to me. What is the basis for that belief?

Secondly, in Norway, I almost failed my Christendom exam in high school for failing to make the distinction between the Israelites of the Bible and the modern state of Israel. It seems that the distinction between Israelites and Israel is not as strong here?

And finally, perhaps because of #2 above, we were taught that the story of the Israelites is our own personal faith story or every nation’s story. The gist of which is “when you are weak and vulnerable, God helps and protects” and “when you are in power, it is your job as God’s servant to care for the weak and vulnerable”.
So I’d love to learn more from evangelicals who believe in American exceptionalism, or from non-evangelicals who can explain it sympathetically?

A New Way of Living

Hah, and I thought May and June were busy…..

I was promoted in mid June, and my new responsibilities mean I do more administration – lots more – and have fewer patient visits and do less spiritual direction. I discovered a funny thing: management and administrative tasks don’t lend themselves as well to blog-worthy reflections. There are fewer human interactions, and of course it’s those human stories that touch me. My computer just isn’t as stimulating!

Hmmm. Let me rephrase that. Managing and administrating are plenty stimulating activities, they jusy don’t lend themselves as well to public blogging. More of my thoughts and reflections need to be kept to myself. My employment situation is a matter of public record, so there is no way of telling the story while keeping the institution anonymous. 

Are there any bloggers out there who have found ways to blog about their reflections on institutional life?

And yet there are many in the area of spirituality who believe in a corporate “soul” and believe that its soul is more than the institution’s culture and more than the sum of the individual employees’ souls. 

To be continued….

Herons and Humans

Some residents of my neighborhood apparently are unhappy that some military surplus land here here is to be given to the city and then used in part to house formerly homeless men, women and children or those who may be at risk for homelessness. Some of my neighbors have expressed concerns for the safety of the neighborhood and for the impact on the heron habitat we have in the adjacent park. As you can imagine, my view of God’s abundance spurred me into action – no need to think there isn’t enough for us all. So here’s a link to the guest column I wrote for the Seattle Post-Intelligenser in today’s paper: Beauty Comes from Humans and Herons.


Thirst for God

I have just facilitated a retreat on transitions for a wonderful women’s group.

One of the things I love about doing retreats is the atmosphere of longing for God that retreatants create. In this heavily scheduled day and age, a person who is willing to set aside a whole day for God is a person who is thirsty for God. God created us with a deep thirst that can only be satisfied by God, and I believe that mine and the retreatants’ holy longing and God’s answer to our longing are the transformative power of a retreat. When I facilitate a retreat, I fan the flames of holy longing. In my mind, holy longing is one of the deepest forms of prayer.

When a person is thirsty for God, anything can happen. When a person focuses on a transition in her life, hungry for God to continue the life-long process of transforming her into a gift to the world….. Miracles do happen.

I started the retreat with a stirring poem by Mary Oliver, made all the more poignant by being written soon after her beloved partner through decades of life had died. It is from her recent collection, Thirst.


Another morning and I wake up with thirst for the goodness I do not have. I walk out to the pond and all the way God has given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, I was never a quick scholar but sulked and hunched over my books past the hour and the bell; grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart. Who knows what will finally happen or where I will be sent, yet already I have given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst, I am slowly learning.

Query for prayerful consideration:

How can I nurture that holy longing, my thirst for God?

My New Quaker Blog

I woke up this morning to the realization that I wanted to add in a new blog. This blog, “Musings on Faith” has given me a wonderful opportunity to explore liberal Christian faith, and to move freely from one topic to another and to range widely. As I have looked more closely at class and faith over the last few weeks, I discovered that I also want an opportunity to go more deeply into issues of faith and practice, within the context of my own denomination. I want to delve into Quaker faith and life in a ways that sometimes may have less appeal for my non-Quaker readers. So, from now on, I will write about how faith intersects with lived life here at Musings on Faith, and I’ll write about issues of faith – in depth – in a more specifically Quaker way at The series of posts on barriers to worship (class being one of them) will continue on my new site. Some topics may show up in both blogs, and I will deal with them a little bit differently in each place.

Even if you aren’t a Quaker, you may find things of value on my Quaker blog because the two will be in conversation with each other. My experience is that faith groups wrestle with more or less the same issues, and you may be interested in seeing how Quakers do it. I always try to write in a manner that will be accessible to all, regardless of denominational background. Here is my description of the new Quaker blog:

In my faith life I move back and forth between contemplation and action. I am a spiritual director and chaplain, and also a spiritually-based activist by nature. When I see something I perceive to be a problem, I like to engage it and come up with ideas for solutions. In this blog, I will wrestle with issues of Quaker faith, practice, and culture, and I’ll write about the condition of liberal Quakerism as I see it. 

I look forward to meeting you again in one or both places!

And It Came to Pass in Those Days…

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Bush that all the land should be registered. This census first took place while Greg Nickels was King of Seattle. So all went up to be registered, everyone to his own city, but not those who did not have homes (because Caesar Bush had made new rules that did not allow them to be counted). At this time, Joseph went up from Puyallup into Belltown in Seattle, where he had stayed before, but discovered that their friends who had lived there in a low rent apartment had moved and the apartments replaced with a luxury condo project. Joseph’s betrothed wife, Mary, who was with child, had no prenatal care since Joseph had been laid off from his carpentry job (where his specialty cabinetry skills had been outsourced) and had lost their health insurance, as well as the home they had temporarily owned in Puyallup with the help of a sub-prime loan.

As they wandered between the cranes hovering above the new high-rise luxury condo towers, they looked in vain for an open shelter. But as Caesar Bush’s Program to End Homelessness had progressed, and fewer people met the new criteria of “homeless,” funding for shelters had been cut and shelters had been closed (even though more people were actually without a home). 

Operation Nightwatch gave them a blanket but told them that the few remaining shelters were full. Joseph and Mary went to the Seattle Times, believing newspapers are supposed to “comfort the afflicted.” They had heard that editorialists and a learned woman at the newspaper had written something about the homeless camps. When they got to the newspaper, however, they learned that Nicole Brodeur had gone to Nordstrom’s to protest the loss of live music for shoppers. And the comfortable were comforted.

Onward they traveled until they reached a park where other men and women had gathered, and there they were welcomed and allowed to use a cave, where Mary had her baby. All the women and men offered their own blankets and scarves as swaddling cloths to keep the baby boy warm. Seeing this new life brought hope even in the darkest of nights. They called his name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Seattle, in the days of Nickels the king, wise men from the east came, saying, “Where is he who is the newborn King, for we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him?” When Nickels the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Seattle with him. He gathered all the chief politicians and scribes of the newspapers together, and enquired of them where the young King was to be born. When they told him a park in Seattle, he was troubled even more, for this was where the people lived who could not afford the “affordable housing” provided by the developers so they could build even higher luxury condo towers.

King Nickels sent the wise men to the park saying, “go and search carefully for the child, so I may come and worship him also.” When they heard the king, they departed and behold, the star, which they had seen in the east, went before them until it came and stood over the young child. When they came into the cave, they saw the young child with Mary his mother and fell down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented gifts to him: children’s Tylenol, hand warmers for his parents, and a Starbucks gift card. 

Then being divinely warned that they should not return to Nickels, they departed for their own country another way.   

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young child and his mother and flee; for King Nickels’ men seek to “sweep” the park, drive away the people and destroy their belongings”. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother, by night, and departed for…. where?