Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Inspiring youth, Independence Day, and the DRC

Fifty-seven years ago on June 30, the Democratic Republic of Congo won its independence. While I won’t go into a political history right now, I will celebrate Independence Day by telling you about my generation and how amazing they are.

Congolese youth are artists, talented photographers and musicians. They are teachers of elementary students and ESL learners. They are preachers and leaders and peacemakers. They are aspiring doctors.

They are aware of their socioeconomic status in their country and their country’s status in the world. They are thinkers and doers. They are innovators and prayer warriors.

Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Blackman Bausi recording with Skye. PC: Katelyn Skye Bennett

My friends, Congolese men and women in their teens, twenties, and thirties, are hilarious, too—just ask me about Charles sometime. They are humble, kind, and very passionate. They are dedicated students and worship leaders and evangelists and creatives. They are uncomplaining friends, patient mamas and brothers and husbands.

They are amazing.

I wish I could tell you about each of my friends in detail – Victoire, Blackman Bausi, Patricia, Patrick, Clarice, Dieum, Sumaili, and so many other dear ones. You could meet some of them or get to know other incredible Congolese youth by visiting Un Jour Nouveau (Africa New Day) in Goma, actually. UJN is always happy to have visitors.

Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Some youth at UJN after Sports Sunday at church. Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Organizations like UJN in Goma and Congo Initiative in Beni work with and employ these youth for social change and a better Congo. They teach Christian leadership and peace in a country tarnished by suffering yet underlaid with resilient beauty. They are part of Congo’s ongoing history.

I’ll say it again: my generation is part of our country’s history. The youth are making change.

Today we celebrate the freedom we have from colonialism. Today we celebrate our victories. Today we remember what we have accomplished personally and as a nation, and we strive forward towards a brighter future.

Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Me and one of my best friends, Dieum. Credit: Katelyn Skye Bennett

Happy Independence Day!

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Some say refugees. I say friends.

I spend nearly every day of the week hanging out at the houses of refugees or having them over my place. On weekends many of us attend church together, all weekend long. On weekdays others of us eat lunch together; I always look forward to 12:30. Several of us practice music together, all of us converse together and call out the ways we appreciate each other, and some of my acquaintances who are refugees open up their houses till midnight to share ugali and rice and greens and fish.

Just this Sunday, I visited a Congolese pastor’s house as a stranger and left with an invitation to return anytime. As I left, he made sure to point out his apartment number and floor so I could find it next time. Thank you, Pastor David.

I recently realized that I talk about my friends who are refugees differently than I talk about my native-born American friends, particularly those who are white or monocultural. Sometimes this lends context, but it can also be problematic if lending to an othering effect.

“Reaching out to” or “serving” our refugee neighbors or any marginalized population in order to feel good about ourselves hinders us from fully engaging with the group being “served.” When we do this, we are looking through a lens of power versus powerless. Although we may be doing good deeds and growing in our understanding of particular refugee populations, subconsciously thinking in terms of power dynamics blocks our hearts from receiving love.

We native-born Americans are not the saviors. But we can be good friends.

Here’s an idea: let’s develop deeper friendships so refugees become fully human in our eyes, fully capable of giving while still fully needy, like us native-born American humans. Let’s open our hearts to receive love from the strangers and soon-to-be-friends we seek to welcome.

While the humanity of refugees is not a question, it is important to note that the human experiences of refugees have been shaped by horrors like war and statelessness. Refugees have experienced things most native-born Americans have not. Their experiences will vary by age and country and contingency. The histories of the countries they have fled and lived in have shaped them in significant ways. The color of their skin will also impact their life chances once in the United States. We must consider the systems in place that affect their daily lives.

Refugees in the United States have overcome a lot: less than one percent of refugees worldwide are resettled, and it is common to spend almost two decades in camps or foreign cities before coming to the US, if granted status here.

Yet once they receive this status and move yet again, they come to a land that often treats them poorly.

Several of my Congolese-American friends have told me that Africans do not believe them when they say the United States is not heaven. (I witnessed this over
-admiring attitude firsthand in DRC myself.) But the truth is that when they come to the United States, they can barely make rent. Their living conditions are not necessarily significantly different. They start at the bottom of the workforce. Academic degrees do not always carry over to the American system. In short, life is still quite difficult.

Take pause today to consider these injustices. Do a little research. Sleep on what you discover. Wake up woke.

Now take pause to consider the ways refugees give to your community and the United States, the ways you have seen them serve. Thank them for their contributions. Be creative about it.

Today I stand with countless global citizens to celebrate world refugee day. It has been a truly splendid day full of energy and smiles and even a bit of dancing (see the InTandem – a Flashmob of Empathy video below from Denver’s World Refugee Day rally.) I particularly think of the ways my friends are bettering my life through their hospitality and friendship and food. The main ingredients I have noted are time, love, and ugali, given in generous portions. I am grateful for my friends who are refugees and am incredibly glad to be a part of their lives as they are in mine.

Three things TCKs taught me not to take for granted

If you know international students or have friends who are third culture kids (TCKs), you know you can’t take anything for granted—not the terms or phrases you use, not your understanding of geographical knowledge and especially not your time spent together.

Language.

Catchphrases are cultural, so you may have to ask questions about what an offhand comment means. Recently a friend I’ve known for a couple years asked, “Do you want more to eat?” I replied something along the lines of, “It’s okay.” She nodded silently and then asked a moment later, “Does that mean you don’t want more?” Oops! That is what I meant, but I can see how my language could be confusing (a) perhaps in general and (b) especially to someone whose second language is English.

Even after years of knowing someone, language differences can interfere with communication. However, this causes you to engage constantly in order to deepen your relationships. You also grow accustomed to hearing or using terms from different languages, expanding your vocabulary and thus your world.

Geographical knowledge.

Next, your international or TCK friends might not know where Montana is, but that’s only because they grew up overseas and probably know where a lot more countries are than you do! And let’s reverse the scenario for a moment: you probably don’t know the names or locations for the provinces in China, Mexican states or other geographical subdivisions in all your international/TCK friends’ countries! I’ll admit I do not. Living in the United States, I’ve never had to know.

Of course, a few TCKS may know more American geography than born-and-raised Americans because of the educational curriculum they’ve used overseas or the places they’ve visited when they’ve come to the States. It’s excusable for international students and TCKs not to know where the state of Connecticut is since they might not have spent much if any time in the States, but when they do-bravo! I’ve met countless American college students who do not know. (In case you’re one of those people, Connecticut is in New England. It’s east of New York and above Long Island Sound, south of Massachusetts and next to Rhode Island. It’s in the northeast United States.)

Time together.

This overarches the daily interactions and conversations with international students and TCKS. Although they may hate goodbyes, third culture kids are used to having people come in and out of their lives, and they’ve been those transient people for others. They know how to value time with their friends.

As college students we have about four years we can expect to be together. After that, who knows where we’ll move on this small, round planet? Nevertheless, as TCKs and Disney fans know, we live in a small world. With international connections and often a penchant for travel, you never know when you may meet again! Years down the road when you bump into your friends in Colorado or Kenya, treasure those moments—as well as the ones you’re living now. We honestly can’t take time for granted.

 

My international and TCK friends have blessed me in countless ways, not the least of which is vicariously showing me more of God’s world. They’ve opened my eyes to see things from different cultural perspectives and have taught me how to count time as a blessing.

What have your international or TCK friends taught you?

Josh and I

Platonic Valentines are the best kind

“Are you okay?”

Class has ended for the day, and I’m walking past the library toward my house when I see one of my best friends travelling in the opposite direction. I pause to greet him, white snow shining in the peripheral and wet asphalt beneath my boots.  In an instant he reads my eyes and then asks me this question. Though the event he is attending begins in five minutes, he takes a moment to refer to a previous conversation and ask what’s up, what’s wrong.

Sometimes you need someone to “get” you, to understand you without your having to explain anything. That person abides on the same metaphorical page as you, and that person knows how to read your eyes or your body language. He or she has walked through enough life with you to do that. You can trust that friend with anything, and in times of heartbreak or fatigue, you can choose to speak, cry or simply sit with him or her. You spend hours laughing together as well. Do you have a friend like this?

I have a few of those friends, my core. I couldn’t do life well without them. These friends stick closer than a brother or a sister, and they “get” me in a way that no Prince Charming could at the moment.

God brought us together fairly randomly: I met Samuel through a class, Ili and Layla in the dorm and Josh in the cafeteria. Our social circles overlapped, and enough of our interest aligned so that we grew close and could understand each other at a deep level.

“We do life together.”

We support each other and need each other in order to stay encouraged and motivated.

I’m eternally thankful to God for my core group at Wheaton, my best friends here. From the outside we may look like an unlikely bunch, being from all different races and cultures, but our hearts are united through Christ Jesus and our love for his beautifully diverse kingdom.

We comfort each other in times of pain or sorrow. I rejoice that we can call each other at all hours or crash at one another’s homes without warning. We are honest with each other and do not have to pretend to be perfect or put together. (Though Ili still doesn’t “wanna be like that [insert a face I once made].” 😉 ) We dine on kimchi soup, Thai salad and chocolate peanut butter shakes; we laugh at the ugly faces we make to underline our points in conversation; we discuss everything from relationships to race. We do life together.

Perhaps most importantly, we pray together and encourage each other in God’s Word. My best friends exemplify both the peace and passion of Jesus. Because they are filled with God’s Spirit, they are patient as Jesus is, and they persevere as Jesus does.

“Are you okay?”

Not everybody means this question, but I’m grateful that my best friends do. They take the time to care, and I am honored to do the same for them. We live in a sinful, broken, corrupt world, but we have each other, and we have hope in Christ Jesus.

We are not alone. And with the family bonds we have through Christ, we will be more than okay.

Five things I learned from my science-major friends

This summer, I became friends with a group of students taking Organic Chemistry. We began to hang out every weekend, and we had tons of fun, but they also stretched me and caused me to grow. Here are a few things I learned in the past month or so:

1. I operate in a very different world than they do. I didn’t understand anything they said when they talked about A-Chem, P-Chem, O-Chem, professors, tests or assignments. I’m used to debating which sociology professor is better, not which lab to take. I’m accustomed to being online doing social media all day and reading articles about race, not studying intricate scientific formulas. I understand journalistic jargon, not bio patois. When I was one of the few non-hard-science majors present, if not the only one, I felt a bit lost and left out, but I understood that this was only natural since I was the only non-hard-science major. I was glad to see their shared passion although I did not comprehend their vocabulary.

I also realized that other people might feel this way around me and my closer friends who operate in more social science/ humanity and writing or even international circles. As a journalist, working in a discipline created for the people, I should be especially careful to speak in terms that everyone can understand in an attempt to make everyone feel included.

Despite our different academic interests, my science major friends excelled at making me feel welcome by inviting me to hang out each weekend, giving me rides and always smiling and listening as good friends do. Of their own will, they went out of their way to include me. And as I grew to know them better, I discovered (as I had glimpsed from the start) that they were way more than super-smart science nerds.

2. People can love biology or chemistry yet also have other passions and places to which God has called them. Some of my summer friends are concerned with social issues such as race in the United States and the genocide of Native Americans as well as the human body and marine biology. As humans we all have passions, dreams and maybe even a draw to specific locations placed in our hearts. Christians may feel this calling more acutely because God wants us to live out his will in specific ways. Needless to say (yet apparently not obvious to me at first), God calls bio, chem and physics majors too.

3. Science majors work crazy hard, but they also have crazy fun. And they can be crazy weird. Together we traipsed through Wheaton, Glen Ellyn and Naperville this summer watching fireworks; belting Christmas carols; chasing each other on the starlit playground like school children; creating a sand octopus that strangled one friend; eating Korean, Indian, French and Italian food; participating in a surprise birthday party and performing incredibly realistic chicken sounds. (The chicken imitation was the weirdest part, and it got even weirder when three of my friends were doing it in a parking garage on the way to the birthday party, suddenly ceasing when other people appeared to claim their car. However, we still have plans to make a larger impression this school year. Stay tuned to campus news, Wheaton College. 😉 )

wheaton fireworks 2015 o-chem friends photo by falecia sanchez

Photo Credit: Falecia Sanchez

4. God is powerful and deserves to be sought. This past week I heard about my friends’ student-led Bible study and attended the last night with the O-Chem students present. I listened as one of my friends, having sought the wisdom of a professor, explained 1 John 5:26. We all wrestled with that Scripture together. We discussed the power of prayer, and they encouraged me in my missionary endeavors to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The way they sought God reminded me of the passionate college students I’d admired in Connecticut.

God used these students to teach me more about himself though regular interactions as well.

5. The diversity of our Messiah’s Body goes beyond race and ethnicity. Most people in this group of amazing men and women were white Americans and thus appeared homogenous. However, we came from varied backgrounds such as the suburban Midwest, SoCal and the “boonies” of Minnesota. I do not intend to demean the significance skin color and ethnic culture plays in our lives and the lives of those around us. However, I was surprised at the cultural diversity within the group despite our shared skin color, and I’m grateful that God showed me how amazing my white skinfolk can be! I needed to learn that lesson. We learned from each other, compared cultural differences we noticed and tried to understand how our cultures influenced us.

Our dreams also varied: One friend has already been accepted into optometry school, and a couple friends are anticipating their upcoming marriage and future children. Yet another is looking forward to working in a Boston lab before potentially going overseas to India. These friends are so welcoming, humble, and inspiring!

You would think that I’d already know all these points, having lived with two hard-science-turned-other-major students this past year. (Common sense is a thing, too, but I’ve always been a little lacking in that area.) I had to be in a group composed of bio, chem and physics nerds in order to learn these five lessons.

These friends have loved me and welcomed me into their circles, offered me generous hospitality and extended warm hugs of friendship. They remained their weird selves in front of me, and they welcomed me with my own quirks and interests and unsightly allergies that make me cry uncontrollably once the pollen builds up each evening. These gracious, intelligent, godly and fun friends filled my June weekends with laughter.

The Organic Chemistry class finishes this Friday, and I won’t see some of my new friends again until school resumes in August. I will miss them! Here’s a shout out to the friends who are leaving for the month: I thank you for loving me. Thanks for teaching me about God and the joyful, vibrant life he’s given us. Thank you for stretching me in unexpected ways!

Photos by Falecia Sanchez

Do you see what I see?

Perception is a funny thing. We all have perceptions of people and things, but our perceptions can be slanted or incomplete based on our contexts and how well we know a person.

For example, tonight I was hanging out doing dumb but fun online quizzes with the middle schooler with whose family I live. We looked up how romantic we were, what color our brains were and so on. On one of these quizzes, we had to pick an occupation out of a limited list. Since the quiz offered nothing journalism related, I chose the most preferable option on the short list: realtor. After I clicked the box, my friend Hannah referred to the options and said, “Really? I would’ve chosen military for you.”

What?! Anyone who knows me well will know I hate war and am not athletic. As a creative person who has never fit in with any one group, I also prefer to work outside the established boundaries, unlike the strict and formal military culture where, to my knowledge, orders are always followed as given.

I expressed why I would not work in the military, and Hannah admitted that she probably thought that because of my hair. (Half of it is shaved.) Because we’re still getting to know each other, Hannah supposed that out of my limited occupation options, I’d choose the military. She perceived this based this on my appearance. It’s understandable but also inaccurate.

I think it’s safe to say that we should hold off making judgments based on our initial perceptions of people! Let’s explore this a bit more now—let’s look into contexts.

After we had satisfied our slap-happiness with online quizzes, I went on Facebook to show Hannah a picture, and as I scrolled to find it, she saw a picture of me from the Office of Multicultural Development’s spring banquet. I was wearing a pale rose colored dress and playing an inflatable guitar next to one of my best friends in his snazzy suit and shades. Hannah was surprised to see me in a pink dress and said she couldn’t picture it.

“What do you picture me wearing?” I queried. I love dresses! The picture seemed natural to me.

“Sweats. Jeans maybe,” she replied.

I realized that whenever I see Hannah, I’m at home, and when I’m at home, I crash and am comfortable bumming out. I don’t have to perform like I do at my internship; at home I can wear my ugly sweater, and nobody will care. While I enjoy dressing up, I also enjoy dressing down afterwards, and since Hannah and I only interact in the latter context, her perception of me was slanted.

Let me be clear: Hannah’s a dear. She’s amazing, funny and smart. Together we laughed till she cried. We “died” by laughter at least five times in the space of a few hours.

But as I reflected on the night, I realized her perceptions about me were incomplete and rather one-sided—through no fault of her own but because we’re still new friends and only operate in the context of her house after I’m off work.

Perceptions can be slanted based on our context and based on appearances. People may perceive someone with arched eyebrows as judgmental. In reality, the woman may simply not be aware of the attitude her plucking job conveys. Hair color, attire, makeup, and an assortment of other physical characteristics cause us to perceive people in certain ways, some positive and others negative. I won’t break them down here, but I will add that our most obvious perceptions or judgments may be based on skin color, since that’s probably the first attribute we notice about a person, whether we can verbalize that or not.

To see is to perceive something with our eyes. Judgments follow soon thereafter. We would be wise to hold off these judgments until we know people better since first and even second impressions are never complete.

What do you see when you look at a person?

Connecting people across racial lines

According to Gallup Strengths Finder, my number one strength is connectedness. Months after taking the Strengths test, I am beginning to realize how true that is. I love connecting people to each other!

For example, I found joy in introducing my friends Sarah Han and Sara Hahne to each other and seeing their reactions as they finally met the other girl on their campus for whom they are always confused. When my Honduran-American friend visited me at Wheaton, I introduced her to my friend who was a missionary kid in Honduras for most of her life, and they conversed in Spanish while I stood back and watched, glad they could speak their home languages together.

Throughout my life, I have felt like a mediator. I was never part of the “in” crowd, but I had good relationships with adults, and I could reach out to the new kids at school. I connected with the outcasts and the lonely. In my freshman year of college, one friend described the main group on my dorm floor as being a pack of wolves. She called herself a lone wolf. I was in between, connecting with both sides, she said. I was pleased at this and thought of myself as a mediator because I do not like to leave out anyone.

Perhaps there is a difference between mediating and connecting, but we can consider that another time. For now, I want to share who I would most love to connect.

Most of my friends now are from the Office of Multicultural Development, a hub and “home” for minority and third culture kids at Wheaton College, IL. Everyone is welcome, regardless of race or culture, which is why I hang out there all the time despite being a White American.

Since I am a White person involved with minority issues, I hope I am in a position to mediate between the majority and the minorities. Perhaps White people will listen to me when I say that #blacklivesmatter because they may be more comfortable around me. Once this trust is established and conversations on race have begun, I can urge them to talk to minorities about minority issues since I am not one myself and have not had the same experiences. I can connect the two parties and help integrate our school into a more harmonious place for the glory of God.

As time passes, I increasingly realize how much joy I find in connecting two people or parties. I love when they are delighted to know each other. I love seeing people make their own connections, and I am glad when they become acquaintances or friends. Something clicks, and I am thrilled.

Why am I writing this today? For one, I did not want to study for finals. Secondly, I was reflecting on the joy of connectedness. Thirdly, as I wrote, I realized that I long for unity and harmony in the world.

Because of Christ Jesus, Christians of all cultures and races can attain this. He has made us one in Him. I especially long to see people of differing cultures and races connect and unite, whether they be East Asians and New Englanders, Blacks and Whites in the States, Puerto Ricans and African Americans, or people of the same race but differing socializations or cultures. We all have some form of common ground, and this commonality is what connects us. When people connect, opportunity abounds for Jesus to be shared and glorified. After all, He is the great Mediator connecting the world to God!

Today I write because am happy and because I hope someone will read this and consider branching out of his or her comfort zone and to make new friends of a different race, culture or background who can challenge and love him or her well.

People have so much to give.