Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Transitioning (As Always)

I'm just blogging because I know I need to do a less formal update for all of  mi familia y amigos out there.. I'm usually a perfectionist about writing and stuff. But I'm not right now, just unloading stuff from my brain.

I think it's healthy to accept that sometimes life is always in a state of perpetual transition.
Over the last several years, my life has been anything but stable. It was on purpose.
There were leaps of faith involved, and organizations and ministries founded and grown. Under the Same Tree has grown, required lots and lots of work, and is full of potential. There was (and is) continuous fundraising, months in Africa, months in the US, living outside, staying with friends around the United States and around Saint Louis.. It was wonderful. It was exciting, and fun, filled with crazy stories. At some point, though, I started becoming tired. It was time to find a place to live again.

So here's what's happening:

1. David and I are working to increase our stability in life. A few years back, he left his job to have the flexibility to travel with me for UTST stuff. We accepted that meant we would have to be living on my less-than-enough-for-one-person income, making lots and lots of sacrifices. After a while, though, we couldn't keep up financially with car repairs, my normally strong immune system started to falter after literal years of eating not much other than rice and ramen noodles, and prolonged periods of sleeping on camper beds, air mattresses, and floors makes you start aging prematurely. That's just terrible!

These past two years of living in crazy ways was necessary to enable a healthy launch for UTST. It happened wonderfully!  Now we need to be healthy too.

So, David is transitioning away from UTST and resuming employment working as a property manager for a Saint Louis based ministry (Love the Lou). Over the Holidays, he has also picked up some work at World Market.. (Oh how I love that store).

I am continuing to work as the director of Under the Same Tree. I raise support for my salary, and it is incredibly, exhaustingly difficult. (Just to be honest). With that in mind, if you could please send a few $5 bills (or more) per month to help maintain my employment, it would sure help me sleep better at night, and maybe work some extra vegetables into my ramen noodle diet. Please help UTST to continue to have a healthy director! And you can do that here: https://underthesametree.cloverdonations.com/staff-support/

2. We got an apartment!

I know, that's some super big news. We signed a lease with a really good friend, and get to move on over in the new year. It's in South City. If you know me, you know I have struggled with enjoying Saint Louis for the entirety of the time that I have been here. But a few years ago, I worked with a refugee resettlement organization in South Saint Louis, and was surprised to realize that I love South City. So, the new apartment is really close to Tower Grove Park, and I am SO relieved that I actually have a place to live!

Also, the camper will be up for sale in the Spring. (Yes, the one that we have been living in. It's vintage and cute and spacious and I hand painted the details and I really do love it a LOT). Any takers?

3. We are on our way back to East Africa

From here on out, it is likely that I will be traveling to Kenya and Uganda twice a year, and taking travelers! This time, we have 6 travelers coming, spaced out over 6 weeks (not including David and I), so I'm really excited about that. We are sending all of our travelers back home with the story of a specific family that they will spend time with, and hoping that this gives UTST the opportunity to expand our base of supporters.

I'll be back at the end of Feb, and most likely heading back in the late summer. Want to come?

So, Merry Christmas!

Monday, September 7, 2015

City of Refuge

When I was an undergraduate student, I majored in Sociology, with a special focus on urban studies. I LOVED being a Sociology student - getting to learn about why the world is the way it is from different perspectives and paradigms. We focused a lot on local issues, and I learned all about Saint . At the end of the program, we each were supposed to find an aspect of this city to research that hasn't received much academic attention. There is a lot of scholarly work done about race relations, gentrification, "ghetto" culture, etc. I didn't know if I could find an under-researched area.

Then, I stumbled upon something that filled my heart with joy. I took an internship at an organization that helped refugee families with resettlement in South Saint Louis. I had never been to that area of the city before, and I was delighted to see women in head coverings walking the streets, Middle Eastern grocery stores, signs in other languages. I am originally from Southern California, from an extremely diverse area, and I was always unsettled by the lack of diversity I saw in Saint Louis and its surrounding areas. It reminded me of where I came from, a little. It turns out that Saint Louis is a major city for refugee resettlement in the US, because it has a lot of cheap housing available, and there once was a need for more factory workers. I started meeting families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, Myanmar, Cuba, Colombia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia.. and more.

I started making friends with refugees. I would come to their homes in the evening, after my internship, and have tea with them. I encountered some really hard stories, and situations that still seemed impossible to overcome. Even after being relocated from a war zone, these precious people still struggle. They are isolated and alone. They don't know the language well. They don't understand this individualist culture, or why their neighbors don't want to talk to them. They have post traumatic stress disorder. They have health problems. They struggle to find purpose in their new American life. I loved being their friend. It was also exhausting. They wanted someone to lean on, to help them navigate this new life, and I was often one of the only phone numbers they had to call.

This was about three years ago, and I remember that the organization I was working with was preparing for new groups of Syrians to begin arriving at any time. They never came.

This week, attention has been directed towards refugees in Syria because a photo of a precious little boy surfaced on the internet. Now there are petitions and marches and demonstrations circulating around. The nature of the internet means that viral topics die down once the next thing surfaces, but this has been an issue for years. There really is a place for them here. If and when I ever have a more permanent place to live, I want to live in South Saint Louis among my refugee friends.

Through my undergraduate studies and internship, I wrote a paper that explains the history of refugees in Saint Louis, and why they are actually a benefit to our city. It was very difficult research, because there are so few academic sources on the subject matter. A lot of data was derived from first hand accounts and interviews. I had professors highly encourage me to get it published, but I never did. Now, I am reminded why it was a timely and important piece of research, and I want to share it. Right now, there are groups of people calling for door to be opened for Syrian refugees to be resettled in Saint Louis, and there needs to be evidence presented that this will be a benefit to our city as well. (Notice that I say "our city" - I'm not originally from here either).

Remember that there are thousands of refugees already here, too.. And even though it is hard and tiring, you can be that phone number that they call when they need a ride to the doctor's office, help finding a job, someone to watch their kids, someone to come pick them up in the middle of the night, or just someone to share tea with.

Refugees in South Saint Louis: The World behind Closed Doors 

Kaitlyn Gresham

University of MissouriSaint Louis 2011


The prevalence of global and civil conflict throughout the world today has forced over fifteen million people into diaspora as refugees around the globe. These mass relocations have great significance in U.S. cities, where immigrant populations have historically had great impact in shaping the nature and futures of U.S. urban centers. This research seeks to provide an increased understanding of the nature of the refugee population in Saint Louis Missouri, a city that has not traditionally been host to a globally diverse population. It seeks to understand how the Saint Louis area of Bevo Mills has been redefined historically by the presence of Central and Eastern European refuge-seeking populations, and the significance of “new” refugee groups from Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East who have recently entered this context.


Research Paper:

            In the year 1850 a farmer stepped outside of his house and looked out across vast fields where green crops flourished above soil filled with deposits of rich red clay. He had chosen this peaceful area south of the big city to grow his crops, knowing that the proximity to the city and the Mississippi River would grant him a good market for his produce. A mere thirty years later, a group of German men gathered on a porch facing a street lined with uniform brick houses.  Although none of the area’s residents had lived there for long, the rituals of gem├╝tlichkeit, gathering to share beer, stories and laughter, fostered a sense of solidarity and pride in their shared national origins (Miller, 2008). In the early 1960s, a middle aged woman peered out a window at an empty street. She had lived in the area all of her life, just as her parents had. The houses where her neighbors and friends had lived now stood boarded up, and the storefronts that were once bustling with people sat vacant. Her loyalty to her neighborhood caused her to decide to remain when her neighbors had moved out of the city, but she worried what the future would hold for this area that had served as the backdrop of her life. Indeed, the area changed drastically with the passage of time. In 1999, a child clung to his mother and father as they approached the brick building that would be their new house. Although they had come to a new country far from home, they saw restaurants serving food that they were familiar with, and newspapers printed in their own language. Together they had seen great violence and tragedy, but they knew that eventually this place could feel like home. Just a few years later, in 2008, two women passed each other on the street. Although they both wore the traditional Muslim hijab, they did not speak the same language and had come from very different parts of the world. The woman from Somalia and the woman from Iraq walked down the street lined with uniform brick houses, knowing little of those who had come before them.
          The experiences of these people span centuries and continents, but are all tied together in the context of the same place. In the heart of South Saint Louis is an area that has come to be known as Bevo Mill. From its foundation, this area south of the Saint Louis Gateway Arch has been the city’s primary destination for populations arriving from war-torn countries around the world. From populations of German people fleeing political tension in the 1800s, Bosnians seeking refuge after the fall of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to recent African and Southeast Asian arrivals from countries scarred by post-colonial era civil wars, the demographics of this area have been ever changing. Although elements of the area continue to reflect its German roots, each new population has played a part in re-interpreting and redefining the space to reflect their own cultural identity. While refugees who have arrived in large homogenous groups have been able to establish vibrant cultural enclaves in Bevo Mills, smaller groups of recent arrivals are becoming marginalized as the area diversifies.
    During the mid-nineteenth century, events that took place across Europe would have a direct effect on the Saint Louis urban landscape. Revolutions that occurred in multiple European countries caused political tension to arise in Germany and much of the population began to be denied their political and civil rights.  When several seasons of bad harvests and economic depression added to the turmoil, many were forced to seek new lives outside of their country (Burnett and Luebbering, 1996). The destination of nearly five million of these refuge-seekers would be in the United States. In what Gary Ross Mormino, Professor of History at University of Southern Florida calls a “tidal wave of immigrants,” many sailed up the Mississippi River to their final destination in Saint Louis, Missouri (Mormino, 1986).  The influx of the new population from Germany and other various European countries caused the city to expand and transform to accommodate the new arrivals. Between 1830 and 1870, the city’s population increased from 7,000 to around 78,000, and was forced to push outwards to the north, south, and west (Miller, 2008). Although they were not the only new European arrivals, very large German enclaves with a distinct cultural flair were formed on the northern and southern fringes of the city.
One area in which German cultural life was most evident was in the southern extremity of the city, in an area that would become known as Bevo Mills. German newcomers were attracted to this area because of the affordable farmland, and most importantly, the development of the breweries which were central to German cultural life. The area was soon transformed from rural farmland to a booming residential area with streets lined with sturdy brick houses. The German social practice of gem├╝tlichkeit, which included a general spirit of friendliness and much social drinking, produced a vivacious dynamic within the community (Miller, 2008).  In the words of Emil Mallinckrodt, a German-St. Louisan, “We live here as in Germany, wholly surrounded by Germans” (Burnett and Luebbering, 1996). The area began to be called “Bevo Mills” when August Anheuser Busch, Sr. chose to construct a Flemish architectural-style restaurant in the area, complete with a towering replica of a Dutch windmill in front (The Saint Louis Core, 2009). The mill became the area’s symbol and namesake, and would stand as a lasting icon of the neighborhood’s German era in the midst of impending change.
        The German community in Bevo Mills worked to keep their culture alive, but as time progressed the area transitioned away from its German heritage. According to a local newspaper, the 1880s were the peak time for German culture in the area (The Globe Democrat, 1969). Schools and businesses used German as their primary language and numerous cultural organizations hosted regular German festivals and celebrations (Sullivan, 1990). In 1920, the dawn of prohibition in Saint Louis caused the local breweries to close down inflicted a severe decline in the strength of the German community (Benn, 2011). Many were put out of jobs and had to move to other parts of the city to seek new opportunities for employment. Many second and third-generation Germans began to assimilate into the dominant Saint Louis society. During mid-20th century the development of suburbs and the process of “white flight” drained the area of many families, leaving it to become a sleepy area with declining property values and an aging population. Long-time residents observed the urban decline that was occurring throughout other regions of the city with concern for the fate of their own neighborhood (The Post, 1975).
        The second half of the twentieth century marked a low point for Bevo Mills, as it came perilously close to its demise as a Saint Louis cultural center. Local newspapers discussed the area as if it were the ruins of an ancient civilization, with statements such as “newcomers to the area feel as if they’ve gone back in time… No renovations have occurred since the 1940s,” referring to the “dingy” remnants of an area that once hosted a “fine civilization.” Some publications went as far as to compare Bevo Mills to a “139-year-old senile delinquent” that was now “on its last legs (The Globe Democrat, 1969.” Still, the long-time residents of Bevo Mills refused to lose hope on the future of the area. Many hoped to tap into the area’s European roots to create a new “Central West End” with a “historic European flair (DeMario, 1986).” The remaining residents of Bevo Mills, however, could not revive the area on their own. If they did not want it to die, it was in desperate need of a rebirth. Like its former German inhabitants so many years ago, the population who would inhabit and re-establish the area would be a group of people fleeing upheavals in Europe, seeking to transplant their lives into safety. The antiquated refuge for German immigrants would be given new life by the people of a fallen Yugoslavia; Bosnian refugees.
               In the early 1990s the most violent European civil conflict since World War II sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into diaspora throughout the industrialized world. The fall of Yugoslavia ignited a brutal genocide in which Orthodox Christian Serbians sought to exterminate the Muslim Bosnians who resided within their newly shared territory (The Bosnia Memory Project, 2012). As families were torn apart, entire villages were massacred, and concentration camps were formed, masses of Bosnian people fled the violence clinging to the backs of trucks or in busses so packed that some died of suffocation (McCarthy and Maday, 2000). An entire population of emotionally and mentally scarred people sought asylum beyond the reaches of the brutal violence, without knowing where the remainder of their lives would play out. A large number of the Bosnians who were given the opportunity to claim refugee status and leave their country suddenly found themselves relocated to an American city that lay west of a wide, murky river and a towering metal arch. Tens of thousands of  Bosnian refugees were brought to the former homes of the German arrivals that had come before them, to the Saint Louis neighborhood of Bevo Mills.
         Saint Louis was chosen to be a prime destination city for Bosnian refugees because it was a city in decline that could sustain a new population; it needed the innovation of this group of survivors to contribute to its own survival. The early 1990s in Saint Louis saw a boom in suburban expansion that drained the city of many residents and left open a multitude of service sector jobs and entire neighborhoods of available housing. While the city of Saint Louis may have seen this as a problem, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) saw it as an opportunity. Prior to initiating the resettlement process of Bosnians who were seeking asylum, the ORR had conducted a comparison of cities across the United States in order to choose a “preferred community” that could, in their words, provide a “favorable earned income potential relative to the cost of living (Office of Refugee Resettlement, 1997).” Rather than giving preference to large multicultural centers such as Los Angeles or Chicago, they sought an area where there was not a large international population in order to avoid potential ethnic competition for available jobs (Matsuo and Poljarevic). Because of its abundance of relatively affordable housing and numerous vacant labor positions, Saint Louis became a preferred destination for Bosnian refugees.
       The arrival of Bosnian refugees in Saint Louis started as a trickle that quickly turned into a flood. In the fall of 1993, a handful of thirty-two Bosnian refugees were sponsored by the International Institute to be resettled in Saint Louis. Within a span of ten years, this number increased to around 60,000, as Bosnians who had been relocated to other parts of the U.S. migrated to Saint Louis, seeking the community and familiarity of their homeland (Cooperman, 2011). This group, which came to comprise 16% of Saint Louis’ total population, inhabited an area between South Grand, Chippewa Avenue, and South Kingshighway in Bevo Mills, where they could be close to the refugee resettlement agencies located there (Matsuo and Poljarevic). Despite the difficult adjustment factors such as cultural differences, higher crime rates, inadequate public transportation, harsh weather and language barriers, the distance of Bevo Mills from the business of downtown provided the new populace with a sense of stability and permanence. Knowing that returning to their homeland was not a viable option, the Bosnian population began to make Bevo Mills their home.
The Saint Louis Bosnians and their host neighborhood benefitted mutually from their presence in the area. As they entered a part of the city that was left largely undefined, the new population was able to re-appropriate the area to reflect their own cultural identity. Bosnians capitalized on the availability of vacant storefronts and former restaurants, creating a brand new cultural enclave.  According to a Bosnian resident, “We settled here in the beginning, and I remember that there were a lot of buildings here that were destroyed. Later Bosnians were buying the buildings and living. And, you know, Bosnians are very successful” (Zahirovic, 2012). Vacant storefronts long abandoned by their former German proprietors soon contained Europa and Balkan markets, Bosnian restaurants and bakeries, and Western European-style coffee shops and bars. Law offices, mechanic garages, beauty parlors, newspapers and even childcare centers soon became advertised under Bosnian names. According to Sukrija Dzidzovic, a Saint Louis Bosnian and publisher of the Bosnian weekly newspaper SabaH, “Bosnians run the gamut, from truckers and bakery workers to lawyers and engineers. Many Bosnians hit the ground running here because they came from Europe with savings they had stashed away. At one time, Bosnians opened so many businesses on blighted streets that hostile rumors spread that they were receiving secret subsidies from the federal government” (Preston, 2010). The rest of the city soon began to recognize and reflect on the transformation that had occurred in Bevo Mills.  According to Saint Louis Magazine, “Neighborhoods such as the blocks around the landmark Bevo Mill [restaurant] that were heading for ghost-town status now are teeming with new residents and new economic activity” (Preston, 2010). As they sought to preserve their cultural identity, the Bosnian population had preserved this part of the city as well.
The new small enterprises in Bevo Mills became the center of Bosnian cultural life, and aided in developing a sense of community among the Bosnian population. Entrepreneurs not only provided jobs and received business from fellow Bosnians, but promoted a sense of cultural unity.  According to a Bosnian resident, "When I came in 1995, that part of Gravois Road between Meramec and Eichelberger Streets was completely vacant. Now, with so many businesses and Southern Commercial Bank, it is a little Bosnian downtown. There are so many Bosnians that at least I am not afraid to walk there anymore" (Tucci, 1999). New restaurants, coffee shops and bars became gathering places for the Bosnian community, where they could come together and eat traditional food, listen to familiar music, speak a common language, and develop a sense of cultural solidarity. According to Saint Louis Magazine, many Bosnians sought to beautify and improve their homes and neighborhoods, seeking to secure a positive reputation within their new city. As the new businesses accrued revenue and buildings were maintained, property values in the area rose (Cooperman, 2011). Alderman Dan Kirner recognized the Bosnian population as the community’s anchor; just like the area’s former German community, this population’s cultural life would carry Bevo Mills into the future (Wittenauer, 2003).
         As time has progressed, passing eras of history have been marked by very different periods of conflict around the world. Audrey Singer and Jill Wilson of the Brookings Institution have classified refugee-producing conflicts into distinct periods: The “Cold War Period,” characterized by the Vietnam War and extending to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the “Balkans Period,” marked by the fall of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian Genocide, and the modern “Civil Conflict Period,” in which a diverse array of global and civil conflicts have taken place. During this period, civil upheavals throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and numerous African countries have been the main sources of refugee arrivals to the United States. Unlike their European predecessors, these new refugees have not been resettled to Saint Louis in large, homogenous groups. Although there have been a significant number of arrivals during the current Civil Conflict Period, their cultural heterogeneity has created a resettlement experience that is dissimilar from those of the prior European arrivals.
             As many as eighty thousand new refugees are resettled to the U.S. from dozens of countries each year, several hundred of whom are annually relocated to the city of Saint Louis (LeLaurin, 2010). Unlike their Bosnian predecessors, refugees who arrive in Saint Louis from countries such as Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Bhutan or Burma arrive in smaller numbers. While they continue to be resettled throughout Bevo Mills, these new populations have not been able to re-appropriate the area to the same extent as the more homogenous refugee groups who have come before them. The Saint Louis Bosnians arrived in large numbers in an area that had lost its definition and were able to re-establish elements of their culture there. New refugees, however, are entering the same area that has now been re-occupied and redefined, in numbers that are too small to significantly influence the culture of the area. As a result, new refugees often encounter difficulties that may have significant implications for the future ethnic landscape of Bevo Mills.
   The difficulties that new refugees encounter when entering the Bosnian-American population of Bevo Mills have caused many to become socially and economically marginalized rather than integrated into a multicultural community. Barry Stein, Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University, differentiates “new” refugees from “traditional” refugee arrivals to U.S. cities. He explains that while traditional refugees who arrived following World Wars I and II entered societies that had many similarities to their home cultures and typically had friends and family waiting for them, “new” refugees who arrive from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures encounter many obstacles (Stein, Barry). In the midst of a strong Bosnian community, many struggle to establish contact with those of their own nationality and develop new social ties. In the words of a Jordanian woman in Bevo Mills, “Sometimes I do not feel like I am living in America; I feel like I am living in Bosnia because that is all I see around me (Iman, 2012).”  According to a Saint Louis Iraqi family, although they knew that there were many other families from Iraq living in the area, they had yet to meet any of them (Wedad, 2012). New refugees are scattered throughout the area, and are often nervous about spending a lot of time in public spaces. This often prevents the formation of ties to the community. After going through the trauma of living in war zones, many may be more comfortable living in social isolation rather than adjusting to interaction in such a multicultural dynamic.
Language barriers and the struggle to find employment create additional barriers that hinder new refugees’ integration into Bevo Mills. The populations from Germany and Bosnia established a cultural enclave in which their native languages competed with English to be the dominant idiom. New refugees have not arrived in Saint Louis in large enough numbers to have this effect. A Burmese woman who had been relocated to Saint Louis in 2009 described her struggle with language barriers during her first experiences in Saint Louis “When we arrived in America, my husband and I only had twenty dollars and a bag of clothes. We knew no English, so we could not ask directions to go to the store to buy food. We would stay in our home all day” (Ciang Man, 2012). When asked about the most difficult part of their transition to life in Bevo Mills, many new refugees additionally describe the difficulty of finding employment. A recent arrival from the Sudan describes his frustration with this obstacle: “I thought that when I came to America, I would get a good job, good living, good employment. But when I came, I was surprised. I saw many thousands of people who do not have a job. I lack everything in my life if I don't have a job. I see that my time is going without benefit… If I stay home like that, I am like a dead body” (David, 2012) The new labor force that Saint Louis had considered an asset from the Bosnian community has increasingly become a burden as the availability of jobs has decreased. While many Bosnians brought with them the resources to start new businesses that could be marketed to their own people and create new sources of revenue, this opportunity has not been readily available to the small groups of new arrivals. Because of this, new refugees often struggle economically as they seek for sources of income and employment.
              The factors that inhibit new refugees from becoming integrated to the same degree as their Bosnian neighbors have significant implications for the future of Bevo Mills. Like the area’s former German population, second and third generation Bosnians are becoming assimilated into the dominant culture of Saint Louis and moving to other parts of the city. According to a Bosnian resident, “If you are Irish or German, your great-great grandpa came [to America] a long time ago and now you are all Americans. Eventually we will become as well” (Zahirovic ). Meanwhile, the new refugees that are continuously entering the area reflect such a variety of cultures that it is unlikely that a new mono-cultural enclave will succeed the Bosnian population. The marginalization of new refugees makes it difficult for them to hold on to their culture of origin, and often makes assimilation the only alternative to complete isolation. As the younger generation Bosnians join the dominant Saint Louis society as well, Bevo Mills may be threatened once again by impending urban decline. The constant arrival of new refugee families, however, guarantees that the area will remain a multicultural urban center.
    The inhabitants of Bevo Mills have long been a reflection of the populations who are experiencing conflict and war around the globe. As the dynamics of tension around the world have shifted and become more diverse, so have the demographics of the area. Through the presence of Bosnian refugees, Saint Louis has been given a glimpse of the revitalization and urban redefinition that can be brought about when new populations are provided with the social and economic resources that they need in order to thrive. The new refugees that are continuously arriving may represent an ongoing opportunity for urban renewal as well, if they are given the chance to develop their own vibrant cultural enclaves. As Bevo Mills continues to diversify, it has the opportunity to reflect back to the world what it might look like for people of very different nationalities, cultural backgrounds, religion, skin color, languages and life stories to share a mutual space in peace.

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Ciang Man, interviewed by Kaitlyn Gresham. 22 Feb. 2012.
Cooperman, Jeannette. "The Bosnian Boom in South County St. Louis." Http://www.stlmag.com. Saint Louis Magazine, Apr. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2012.
David Flan, interviewed by Kaitlyn Gresham. 19 Feb. 2012.
DeMario, Julie. "Renaissance: Bevo Mill's Rebirth Spurs New Growth." The Globe Democrat [Saint Louis] 10 Feb. 1986. Print.
Elmin Zahirovic, interviewed by Kaitlyn Gresham. 19 Mar. 2012.
Iman, interviewed by Kaitlyn Gresham. 19 Mar. 2012.
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Saturday, August 29, 2015

I was a little nerd // I was a raging fire

When I was in my early teen years, I was only allowed to listen to Christian music. Luckily, I was mostly fine with that, because there were some phenomenal artists producing music in that genre during those years. Albums of lyrical depth and musical quality were being produced in that "era" that I still listen to frequently and love to this day.

One of about five groups that were producing really great material (in my opinion) during those years was Jars of Clay. (They're actually still producing really great stuff... and the band has been around for over 20 years. Am I getting old?)

It was a time when I was asking a lot of questions about the world, and my role in it. I was highly curious, and highly sensitive to issues of injustice. In 2003, Jars released a cd called "Who We Are Instead." (To this day, still one of my favorites). I was 13 years old. In the CD insert, there was a brief mention of Africa, and something about blood and water. In those days, I still had to ask to use the family computer and get on the internet. I spent all of my allocated internet time that day researching what turned out to be the very, very infant stages of an organization being founded to address the water and HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.

I was captivated.

I loved music, I was curious about the world and about injustice. In a moment, the two intersected. Artists were bringing the stories of these far away people to life, and I was all in. And they were just barely beginning.

I watched as Blood:Water Mission was founded by a group of artists who were passionate about this place called Africa. I watched as they brought on this college aged girl named Jena to create and direct the organization's programs.

I was enamored.

She was eight or nine years older than me. (College seemed like an eternity away at the age of 13). She was passionate and articulate, independent, risk taking, and I hung on her every word. I paid close attention as she led this organization, backed by Grammy award winning musicians. I didn't know that she had no experience. I didn't know that all she was going on was passion and vision. She was my hero.

It was from them, from Jena Lee and Dan Haseltine from Jars of Clay that I first learned about the issues affecting Sub Saharan Africa. They would write blogs, and I would print them and keep them in a binder. They would write chapters in books on activism and global issues, and I would buy them and read the whole thing. I learned brand new words, such as "cynicism," "idealism," and "holistic." I learned how the Christian church was slow to respond to pressing issues around the world. I learned about a far away culture and place that seemed so heartbreakingly beautiful.

Most importantly, it was from them that I first learned of the intersectionality of HIV, women's rights, and sanitation in Sub Saharan Africa. I was like 14. Other kids my age were just getting over Backstreet Boys obsessions and I was obsessed with... a crisis on the other side of the world? I was a raging fire. I weirded my friends out. Including David, who at the time was not interested in dating me... probably for this reason. I was a little nerd who was dedicating literally all of my free time to researching a really big disease (I soon learned the word "pandemic"), and socio-political issues on the other side of the world. I read every book I could find. I had decided that I was a student of Africa. I remember writing that in a journal. By the time I finally made it to college, my professors were freaked out by the knowledge base I had developed. I wrote every paper on the issues that had so captured my attention. But I knew I needed to learn more from experience. I came incredibly close to taking an internship with Blood:Water Mission in Nashville... but somehow I ended up in Tanzania instead.

In Tanzania, I met a little girl named Victoria who was an AIDS orphan. She was 9 years old, and she had AIDS too. And Tuberculosis. She could barely stand, she wasn't eating.. I carried her home from church one day because she was too weak. Two years later, she died. When I heard, I was beside myself. I wanted her to live. I wanted to give the rest of my life to her so that even though she died, she could live. I was all in. There was a fire in my heart.

I started a nonprofit organization by accident, kind of. I never really meant for it to happen the way it did. But I had friendships and relationships in Africa that I maintained, and I think that demands something of you. I met people there with vision for their communities without resources to make it happen. Even more than that, I saw people around me in America and felt like they needed to know what I had come to know. The kind of hope that I have only found on that side of the world. Somehow before I even realized it, I was managing this thing that came to need a 501-c3 certificate, and suddenly became a nonprofit organization. It was incredibly small, very challenging, scary, and I loved it. The same holds true today. Under the Same Tree starts with microfinance and economic empowerment, but the ultimate goal is to utilize the effects of the economic empowerment to reduce women's vulnerability to HIV, to empower the widows and the single moms, to increase communities' capability to care for orphans, and to prevent kids from being orphaned and abandoned in the first place. You see, in this region of the world, all of these things are interrelated and interconnected. It's so hard to address just one thing in isolation. But we will take it slowly.

Back to Blood:Water Mission.

Jena Lee Nardella released a book this past week, chronicling her story of starting Blood:Water. She was my hero when I was a teenager, and I was able to hear how her fears and insecurities in those years are so very much like the ones I have now.

She wrote of early years, when they had so few donors and supporters, of a year they raised little over $1500. I realized profoundly that the little chunks of $30 I gave out of my teenage spending money that year were probably a significant fraction of that amount. I remembered poignantly the way that her story set me on a significant path. It is so interesting to go back and realize how your story can be wrapped up with someone else's, even if you don't know them.

At the end of her book, she writes:

"True hope is always hard. It is not a passive wishing. It is an active exercise, a choice, an intention. Hope means giving up apathy and despair and instead embracing the uncertainty that terrifies you. It is the sacrifice of keeping your heart soft... We will not feel the rush of serving as we did once, but we will stay with it anyways. It means admitting that the world is indeed a hard place to live, and it will likely break our heart if we keep engaging with it, but we will choose to hope anyway... it's less about having it all together and more about the unwavering commitment to keep walking."

I thank God for early 2000s Christian folk/rock music. I thank God those artists chose to believe in a college aged girl named Jena. I thank God her words and actions have propelled me forward for over a decade. I am so proud of what Blood:Water is today and all they have accomplished. I'm honored to have watched this organization grow from the very, very beginning. I'm thankful for all they taught me. I'll always be a student of Africa. But now I am a sister, a friend, a partner. I'm still all in.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Hardest Part About Coming Back

We've been back in the states for over a month now, and in some ways it was like we were never gone. The question I have been asked most often is what the hardest part is about coming back. I've travelled a lot before, and I don't really go through culture shock like a lot of people do. I hadn't really felt like it had been hard at all, and yet I had been feeling kind of "off." I couldn't figure out what it was. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks last week during a day I thought would be predictable. We have built a life here in Saint Louis around a church and community that we love. The smallest things had changed, and I didn't know about it. I felt out of the loop and ungrounded and disoriented all at once. Life here had kept moving forward without us while we were gone, and I didn't like it. I realized that was what the hardest part about coming back has been. Feeling disconnected from the life here that I thought was so consistent. There is something about community and feeling needed that I think is so essential for humans, and coming back and not knowing quite where to jump back in has been harder than we expected. Everything going on in Nairobi was really dependent upon us to make it happen, in a lot of ways. It's not like that, coming back here. It's easy to feel disconnected.

We were not gone for that long, but at the same time, our life for the past year or so has completely lacked the permanence that a lot of people take comfort in. We have been completely without a permanent home; going from living in an apartment to a camper, to with friends, back to the camper, to Uganda, to Kenya, back to Uganda, back to Kenya again, back to Saint Louis, with family, on the road sleeping in the back of the car for a month, back to living with friends. It has been really fun. It's been the kind of adventure you dream about for years as a young person. It's also been exhausting in ways that creep up on you. It was exhausting coming back from Africa and trying to figure out where we would sleep that week. Luckily, wonderful friends have given us a longer-term space. This summer in Saint Louis has proven to be too stormy to accommodate camper-life.

How do you live among two communities at once, on opposite sides of the world, without feeling disconnected and out of place? Maybe it starts with realizing what the struggle is in the first place, then letting your friends know that it is hard, and that you need them to help you stay healthy and feel needed.  It's not really a magical, fairy tale kind of life, but it is good. It's really good. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"We have no house, but we have homes everywhere we go"

"We need to quietly make friends with people; steadfastly stay the course. Jesus said, in training His disciples. "Go out and take nothing with you. Go out and make friends!" ...When the vision of our ministry matches what God has called people to do, they will help us carry out the work. When Jesus sent the disciples out with nothing at all, it put them in a vulnerable place - where they were completely dependent on God. They could not trust their own security or providence, but only in God. What is beautiful with the early Christians is that they were not just to wait around on God to rain down manna from Heaven, but they were also to make friends and trust that people along the way would take care of them and welcome them into their homes. It put the early Christians in a position where not only were they to practice hospitality, but were also to be dependent upon recieving it. As one of the early Christians said, 'We have no house, but we have homes everywhere we go.'" - John Perkins and Shane Claiborne, Follow Me to Freedom

It has been almost exactly a year now since David and I moved out of our apartment so that we could leave our full time jobs and really launch this ministry, UTST. We have lived in a camper. We have also lived for periods of time with many, many of our friends. And family. We just finished up a three week circle of the southern states where we visited many old friends and made many new friends, and shared the stories of our friends in East Africa. This post is a thank you. Thank you for being a community so like this early Church that is talked about in the quote above. Thank you for taking care of us. Thank you for loving sacrificially.

When we first started this journey, mentors told us that God would provide for our needs, but it might not look exactly like we expect. Well friends, it looks a lot like you. Thank you :)

We are on our way back to the stl right now. If you are there, see ya soon!
- Katie and David

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

This one is about the things that scare me.

Since we have been back from East Africa, we have been working to take months worth of video footage and compile is into a series of visual stories that share the heart of our work in Kenya and Uganda, and the lives of the people we work with there. I have been so excited to share all these things with the whole world. So for about three weeks, we are visiting friends and churches all throughout the southern US to share this thing.

This is where I get a little scared. There are a lot of things I am not scared of. There are also a lot of things I am terified of that I am constantly having to shove myself out the door to do anyways.

I am a behind the scenes person, naturally. I seriously dislike being the center of attention. And yet I constantly constantly  find myself up speaking, singing, leading stuff, and trying to say a big no to my introverted side. Good thing His power works best in our weakness. I am banking on that.

So this week I am a little scared. I have been given several opportunities in all these cities to stand up in boldness and share my heart, and hopefully raise up a good support network for UTST, but I fear the criticism of others. We made a "documentary," but we are not videographers or cinematographers in the least. Yikes. Yet, I find so many people opening their doors and welcoming us in. I love the people I work within East Africa, and i have the monumental privelege of sharing their stories.  So here we go.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Last Month

Living in East Africa is a lot of things. I've always loved this place for its natural beauty, simplicity, joyful people, and unwavering sense of hope. We are constantly surrounded by a community that we have come to love so dearly, friends that we can laugh at anything with, and an abundance of avocados and mangoes. But it also takes an incredible amount of patience and flexibility. It takes a lot of letting go of expectations and control. It takes being willing to accept that most things are just not going to go your way. And that it's ok, because your way is not always the best way.

Now, remember that back in the US, we live in a rolling pop-up camper. Our life here is actually slightly more cushy than it is back there! The fact that the most simple, every day tasks such as getting a cup of water, taking a shower, cooking, or trying to log on to the internet take a lot of time and effort is not an unfamiliar thing. Sometimes doing these things in a simpler way makes me feel more human. 

Throughout the middle of March, we had friends from the US come to visit, and we ran around Uganda and Kenya non-stop. I was really impressed at how successful we were at making the most of their time here! (Why is David never in any pictures? He is always the one taking them.)

But after these past few weeks, I feel tired. Nairobi is incredibly loud, chaotic, crowded, and dirty. It is packed to the brim with innovative and hard working human beings, and I've been blessed to get to live among it all. I'm just a little tired. 

We have only a few more weeks here before we head back to the US and almost immediately hit the road again. We are putting together a show that combines live music with a documentary that introduces people to some of our wonderful friends here, and the stories they have to tell. We are really hoping that it connects people to the ongoing work here in powerful ways, and helps raise much needed program funds. That's what is next for us! I'll be sending out a newsletter about more specific happenings here in East Africa soon. But first, sleep!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Mexican food in Africa

This boy. I'm really proud of him. When we first started talking about pursuing ministry in East Africa, he was on board with no hesitations.  He left a lot of things he loves to come here with me - friends, musical instruments, consistent internet... and food. He's flexible. On days he doesn't feel well, he keeps going. He makes sure I'm eating and resting. He makes me take my vitamins. We're best friends. We're a really strong team. He wants me to be nothing but who God made me to be, and trusts me in this, and in life, in a way that really humbling. We don't always look like your average couple. Sometimes people make remarks to him that would seem offensive, because he isn't quite the "machismo" that culture would expect. But he rolls with the punches and turns them into jokes, and is completely comfortable being who God has made him to be. And I love this beyond words.

Since we've been in Kenya, he has been cooking every night. He and our friend Tom have been coming up with really good adaptations of all kinds of food - pizza, quesadillas, fajitas, curries, and last night - my favorite of all favorites in the whole world - fish tacos. Homemade tortillas, fresh vegetables, and whole fish straight from Lake Victoria. Wow. I just have to brag a little.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Quick Update from Nairobi

A quick update –

We spent the last few weeks in Uganda, helping a community organization lay the groundwork for a community development project and children’s home. We hopefully will have more updates on this project as it comes along!

We just arrived in Nairobi a few days ago, and are working to plan with the leaders for what will be accomplished during our time here. We haven’t met with the community members yet, but we’re really excited to see them again. We will hopefully be able to gather a lot of good information, and re-launch our sponsorship and support programs on the US side really soon!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Thoughts from David

Hi everyone, this is David! I know you all hear a lot from Katie, considering that she loves to write and this is her blog and all... but an update from me is well overdue.

There is a song that plays over and over again on the radio every Christmas. Maybe you find yourself singing to it like I do, but we don't think through what we are singing, (although we could say this about most of what's on the radio these days). I hummed along with this song for years, without ever realizing what the words were saying. This Christmas, the words to this song left me particularly puzzled. Here's what they say -

But say a prayer to pray for the other ones 
At Christmastime 
It's hard, but when you're having fun 
There's a world outside your window 
And it's a world of dread and fear 
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears 

And the Christmas bells that ring there 
Are the clanging chimes of doom 
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you 
And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime 

The greatest gift they'll get this year is life 
Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow 
Do they know it's Christmastime at all? 

Here's to you, raise a glass for everyone 
Here's to them, underneath that burning sun 
Do they know it's Christmastime at all? 

-Band-Aid (Bob Geldof)

Now, to be fair, this song was written in the 1980s to raise money in response to a terrible drought and famine that was going on in the Eastern part of the continent. However, I feel like the words to this song represent a lot of the perceptions that people in the US (including myself in the past), have had about this gigantic part of the world. After all Africa (a continent, not a country) is quite large.

The past few years in life have turned a lot of the stereotypes I grew up believing about Africa completely around. The song that I mentioned talks about nothing ever growing here. It talks about no rivers flowing here. And it assumes that they don't know it's Christmastime at all. (And based on that assumption, it also indicates that there are no Christians here).

Over the past week, my experiences have been 100% opposite of the stereotypes indicated by the lyrics to this popular Christmas song. I have driven hours and hours through the greenest landscapes that I've ever seen! Up and down hills that are surrounded by trees. They are growing everywhere. You can't look outside and not see plants growing bananas, jack fruit, pineapple, sweet potato, mango, avocado, sugar cane, maize, plantain, coffee bean, rice.. And those are just the ones I have heard of.  Also there are rivers that flow here. We actually saw the Nile River. It's debatably the longest river in the world and it is beautiful. They do celebrate Christmas here. We arrived just as couple weeks after Christmas and there are still decorations up everywhere. Within the first 10 days of being here I have been to 4 different churches. Each congregation was alive with enthusiasm, engaged in the message, and excited to welcome us into the worship service with them.
Now I know it seems like I'm just bashing this catchy holiday classic, but I really just wanted to share with you that my experience has been different here. And I think you deserve to hear it.

So you may be wondering why I wanted to come here, and what my role is.

Katie spent time in Africa as we were teenagers, and she started sharing stories with me. But these stories about people and their lives there sounded different from the stereotypes that I had heard and believed as a kid. It was actually very encouraging to hear these people and their stories. They actually weren't as "different" as I had heard. And eventually it clicked inside me that They are not only just people but that they also are equally loved by God.   Now the question that I held onto wasn't "Why are they so different from us?" but it was slowly turning into a new question: "How are we the same?"
As Katie and I got older, we knew that we were both being moved towards ministry-related work. It was what we did. It was what we always found ourselves doing with others. And whether they were mission trips to other countries or serving in and around our city in St. Louis, I know that as God leads with opportunities I would need to follow.
Over the past couple of years we have had the opportunity to help start a ministry that partners with locally led community based organizations here in East Africa. We are spending time here to work with our partners. Within Under The Same Tree, Katie's role is director of programs and operations. This means that she works in collaboration with our East African partners in administration, organization, strategic planning, fundraising, and overall direction for the organization. My role in UTST is public and donor relations. While here in East Africa, I will be working to make sure that those who support Katie and I and the work being done here are as engaged and informed as possible. I will be working as hard as I can to make them feel as if they are along on this journey with us, and connected with the people that we are working with. I will also be working to try and bring in new donors and supporters. So if you and your family, friends, churches, or churches are interested in partnering with us, I'm your guy.

I came here for the first time to help with this ministry, but also because We want to tell a new story about Africa- not about depravity, darkness and helplessness, but about dignity, local innovation, a church that's alive, endless natural beauty, incredible human spirit- and in the end, I want this story to be about my friends - the friendships here that are helping me to experience what it means to be a human being - formed by the hands of God and dependent on his green earth & the loving arms of those around me. There is life here that is unknown in the US. To me the new story of Africa is how much they have here that cannot be found in the US. It is a story that I would like to see children growing up hearing.



Monday, January 12, 2015

First update!

We've completed our first week in East Africa! Although we flew into Nairobi, we immediately hopped on a bus and took a 14 hour ride to the neighboring country of Uganda, where we are spending our first few weeks. We've had a really great opportunity over the past several months to build a relationship with a Ugandan community-based organization called Care for Orphans and Community Development Uganda, because up until now, their director Sam Mugaya was living in Saint Louis, studying medicine at UMSL. I was also a student at UMSL, so I was really excited to get to know Sam last year and talk about what has been going on in Uganda. Under the Same Tree works to partner with locally led community organizations in East Africa, and so we were naturally very interested in coming to see what Sam's organization is doing. Timing worked out really well, and we were able to set things up so that we were able to come here during the same week that Sam was moving back to Uganda from Saint Louis. So this week has felt like a big homecoming for everyone, and it's been really cool to get to be a part of it.

Sam's ministry, Care for Orphans and Community Development, or CAFOCOD (as they call it), is working to support 30 orphaned children in the rural village of Kiboga, Uganda, through the help of a local church. They also run free health clinics, and are working to build a medical facility in the village of Luwero, where the people have no access to health care. We were able to help out at one of the free clinics yesterday. We set up under tents in the middle of forest of banana trees, and people walked from miles around to get to visit a doctor. Some were mothers with tiny babies on their backs, and some were elderly people over the age of 80. They sat down and waited for hours to be seen, while chatting or dancing to the music of a drum circle. The ability to take care of the health of themselves and their families was so evident, and although I am not a medical specialist by any means, it was really incredible to see what could be done with a couple of doctors, a handful of medical supplies, and two tents.

The rest of the time that we spend in Uganda, we will be getting to know the orphaned children  that this ministry cares for, gathering information and compiling media to send back to the Saint Louis based team,  and helping with strategic planning. The team of people working to make this ministry possible here truly considers one another family, and they have been quick to welcome us into the circle. We have shared so much laughter already. We are excited to see how our relationship with this ministry and the rural communities of Kiboga and Luwero grows and develops in the upcoming year!

We will be heading back to Nairobi after another week or so!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Heading Out

After a wonderfully relaxing Holiday Season, David and I are leaving on Monday to spend three months in East Africa, working with the ministries that Under the Same Tree partners with. We will spend the first couple of weeks in a town outside of Kampala, Uganda, where we will help local doctors run a free community health fair, and we will attend the groundbreaking ceremony for a clinic and orphanage/school.

When we get back to Nairobi, Kenya, we will be working on our sponsorship program for microloan recipients and their children, as well as working with them to build local food sources. We are working in partnership with a local church, and will be helping them with all of their activities in the community.

This is David's first time traveling to Africa with me, and I'm really excited to finally get to do this together. David's main role in Under the Same Tree is public relations and donor relations, and he is really looking forward to working to capturing the moments and stories that will connect people in the US with the communities we serve.

A lot of people have been asking where they can look to find updates from us over the next several weeks/months. There will be three main ways I am planning to send info out - email newsletters, this blog, and through Facebook. If you don't already receive our email newsletters but would like to, please just send your email address to underthesametree@live.com.

Thanks for all of the love, support and prayers!