A Breath of Fresh Air, Part 2

The image of breathing fresh air has captured my imagination lately.

In part, it’s because I’m doing the Clean Air Challenge in a few weeks (and, realized last night that it’s a week earlier than I had on my calendar … whoops!), and that’s all about breath and air. The Clean Air Challenge is a long bike ride (up to 100 miles … last year Erin and I rode 60. This year, due to injuries and stress and other factors, it will be less) out of Talkeetna that raises money for the American Lung Association, trying to make the world a better place for people with lung diseases — asthma, COPD, lung cancer, etc. People like me, and a lot of people I care about deeply.

But I also just got back from my second service trip to rural Guatemala, a small village in the highlands of Quiche.

One of the most fun things about visiting Esquipulas is getting to know the children, who are fascinated with us and the pictures we take on our smart phones. 

However, this time I noticed something different.

When I held this sweet baby, I noticed her cough.


Her sister also coughed.


These kids … I also heard coughing.


Kids cough. I was a Children’s Hospital Chaplain for over a decade, and I’ve been around a lot of kids coughing. And I finally get that when I get sick each January, and my cough lasts for 6-7 weeks, that’s likely got a lot to do with my asthma.

But where we were in Guatemala, there’s one doctor for about every 10,000 people. 

The infant mortality rate in this area is in the mid-twenties per 1,000 (compared to 5-6 deaths per 1,000 in Alaska). And the leading causes of death for kids under 5 years old are respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses.

Again and again during this trip, I was grateful for the work of Medical Teams International, to get a clean-burning stove in the home of each family with children under the age of 2, replacing smoky open fires in homes. Still, it was sobering to realize with each cough that it could be so much more significant — even life-threatening — than what I think of here at home when I hear someone cough.

(*I also love that Medical Teams International does important work all over the world, including in Syria and South Sudan)

I’m a hospital chaplain. I watch people die because of respiratory illnesses. For a while, I probably knew a majority of people in Alaska with cystic fibrosis. And I think one of the scariest things I witness in our ER is how it feels for someone to not be able to breathe.

And so I’ll ride. And I’ll ask for your help, because a breath of clean air isn’t something we should take for granted. But it’s something I want us all to have.

You can join me in supporting the work of the American Lung Association here.

What do you know about the war on women?

I deeply appreciate this powerful reflection by Francisco Herrera on “The War on Women” … and now I have another book to read.

A common maxim in our country is that before you can change, you have to acknowledge that there is a problem. In this week’s post, as part of Women’s History Month, return author Francisco Herrera speaks honestly and vulnerably about the moment that he realized that he personally wasn’t doing enough to fight sexism and […]

via The War on Women – Francisco Herrera — We Talk. We Listen.

Guatemalan joy

I think what I want to remember most about this last week in Guatemala was all the laughter, and the smiles.

At Parque Cerro de la Cruz, Antigua, Guatemala

Unselfconscious, genuine laughter, in all kinds of circumstances.


I love that I caught Candelaria in this moment of laughter, holding her sweet daughter Gabriela.

I loved that while we were hauling aluminum gutters from the church to the bus, a group of mothers and daughters and I smiled at each other and giggled, with them pointing and laughing and shyly looking away … it didn’t matter whether we spoke English, Spanish or Pokomchi. The laughter was universal. 

And our team recalled several times that during our first water system installation, when we had to figure out how to make the gutters and PVC pipe slope down into the water tank that was in fact at a higher level than the house, the response of the masons working with us wasn’t frustration, wasn’t anger, wasn’t blaming or giving up. They laughed, and tried different things, listened to others’ ideas, and kept working. Ingenuity won the day, with the help of laughter. The solution? Raising the roof.


I still can’t wrap my head around the poverty we witnessed. Can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a place with no water source — no well or stream or lake or community water system. What it would be like to live on $2 a day or less. To have the experience of the death of a child — or children — be more common than not. 

But the laughter is a sign of resilience, and a sign of hope. I see it at the hospital too, sitting with a family after a death, sharing stories, and unfathomably laughing. Not in denial or with bitterness, but because the human spirit is strong, and perhaps inclined toward joy.


And so I want to remember the laughter. Of teammates who began as strangers and ended up as friends. Gladis, whose laugh is like a bubbling stream, tumbling over itself. Romeo, whose laugh is somewhere between a giggle and a chuckle, and an utterly genuine sound. Edy, whose laugh is gentle and kind and makes me smile. Trying to describe laughter to Isaias at dinner, when we couldn’t remember the word in Spanish (it’s “reirse,” to laugh) … until he started laughing.

I want to remember that, and so much more about this journey. The laughter is a good place to start.

Returning to Guatemala

In just three days, I leave for Guatemala.

I have vivid memories of my trip to Esquipulas, Chicaman last year, the intensity of poverty, the beauty of the people, all that I learned about prioritizing relationships, and a painful clarity about how much I have and take for granted.

Twelve of us spent the week helping install latrines and handwashing stations in Esquipulas, because the leading causes of death in children ages 0-5 are diarrhea (41%) and acute respiratory infection (25.3%). Providence Health International (PHI) is committed to ensuring that each home with children under five will have a sanitary latrine and clean-burning stove, and every mother will have access to health education and support. That each family will have access to clean water.


Some other facts about Chicaman: 

–Chicaman is made up of 71 communities, with a population of 35,000

–There is one doctor for every 10,726 people.

–The rate of chronic malnutrition under 24 months of age is 66%

–Almost 88% of the population lives in poverty (less than $2 a day) and 67% lives in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 per day).


It’s easy to go on a trip like this and be struck by how important it is to help, to want to offer as much as we can in the way of time and resources. But it was more important that we build relationships.

We witnessed powerful examples of the importance of relationships. PHI and Medical Teams International (MTI), our community partner, are committed to partnering with families — each family that was to receive a latrine was to dig a deep hole before we arrived. However, we came to Esquipulas the week after Easter. The majority of the village is Catholic, and the father of one family was also the deacon of the church, responsible for the community’s extensive Easter celebrations. When we arrived he was still finishing digging his hole.

However, we had seen him earlier that morning. Across the way, when we’d been installing a latrine for another family, this man was present, helping his neighbor, and putting his neighbor’s needs ahead of his own. And when the time came, his neighbors reciprocated.

I couldn’t help but think in “my” world, I would have said “Gosh, I’d really like to help you, but I’ve been really busy and I need to make sure I get my hole dug before the team arrives.” But that’s not how it works in Guatemala. And that sense of community, that valuing of relationship — they are the better for it, and I’m aware of what I lack.


Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, known as the “Father of Liberation Theology,” in talking about the “preferential option for the poor,” says that “It is good to specify that the preferential option for the poor, if it aims at the promotion of justice, equally implies friendship with the poor and among the poor. Without friendship there is neither authentic solidarity or a true sharing. In fact, it is a commitment to specific people.” (P. 157, In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, edited by Michael Griffin and Jannie Weiss Block).

Gutierrez also says that “There is no true commitment to solidarity with the poor if one sees them merely as people passively waiting for help. Respecting their status as those who control their own destiny in an indispensable condition for genuine solidarity.” (P. 156)

Next week I’ll be returning to Esquipulas, this time co-leading a group of Providence Alaska caregivers (14 of us, altogether). Again, we will partner with Medical Teams International, this time helping with a water collection project.

I know that this trip will be about far more than water. My heart will stretch. And ache. And love. 

I can’t wait to share the stories with you.

If you’d like to support this work, you can do that by clicking here, through Providence Health International. We can only do this together.

Fishing Lessons and Refugees

Four walls and a cross, a font and a table might be important, but they aren’t much if we aren’t bringing God’s good news to where people are, to where it is desperately needed. And I think especially right now, we need to remember the many ways Jesus went to the people. He went to the people who were suffering. People who were sick in need of healing. People who were outcast, who were untouchable. He provided food for the hungry. Good news for the poor. Setting the oppressed free. If we are to take seriously what it means to be Christian, to follow Christ, we need to take these words very seriously.

Toward Creative Extremism: Remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m grateful to have a sister-in-law, who (unbeknownst to her) reminds me each year on this day that it’s a good day to reread Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

And I especially appreciated her encouragement this year to read it with a lens toward the parts that make me most uncomfortable (rather than necessarily the parts I think should be making OTHER people uncomfortable).

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

I’m preparing to return to Guatemala in March, and in preparation, I’ve been listening to an audiobook, Open Veins of Latin America about the history of Central and South America and the devastation of conquest, colonialism and violence. And it’s really hard to read/listen to the repeated accounts of how Europeans and the U.S. Have plundered these lands, abused, tortured and killed the people, over and over and over for centuries. For coffee. Sugar. Bananas. Precious metals. Chocolate. How do I grapple with my role in these underlying causes?

I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

Am I aware of all the times I’ve been more cautious than courageous? I was raised to believe that cautious is good. I work hard to cultivate courage.

I was inspired by this passage:

The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I am both uncomfortable but also inspired at the thought of what it looks like for me to be a creative extremist. An extremist for love. An extremist for justice.

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And I’m glad to be uncomfortable.

I’m increasingly convinced that we need to increase our ability to tolerate discomfort. And by “we,” I mean those of us with deep experiences of privilege. If you’re living under the daily oppression of racism, you not only are far too familiar with discomfort, but with suffering as well.

However, there are many of us with feet in multiple worlds. I move through the world with a lot of privilege. I have a lot of education, including a master’s degree. I’m white. I’m comfortably middle class. I’m an ordained minister. I hold a manager position in a hospital. I’m able-bodied (if a little vertically challenged 🙂 )

And I also have lived my life female. I identify as queer.

The thing is, none of this makes me a good or bad person. These are all aspects of my life, just like “chaplain” and “poet” and “dog mom” and “Lutheran.” They are all windows to different parts of the world, and my view may be different from yours. There may be some ways that I need to introduce you to the world I see. And there are likely many ways I need to have a clearer picture of the world where you live.

My hope is that we will find the places where our worlds intersect. My deeper hope is that together we will create a world where all are welcome, where all have what they need to survive and thrive. That all people have the opportunity to love and be loved.

And today I’m grateful for my many heroes who have led the way. Today, especially, for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood (sic), I beg God to forgive me.