Me and my family when they dropped me off in Wheaton for my freshman year of college.

This is my last…

Many college seniors count their “lasts” – the last chicken tender night at the cafeteria, the last general education classes they put off for three years, the last spring break road trip with the roomies, the long-awaited last set of finals. I do not know what collegiate lasts will most strike me, but I am preparing myself for some larger lasts.

I hope to return the Democratic Republic of Congo soon after I graduate. I hope to live there permanently or until God moves me elsewhere. I recognize that I do not know God’s timeline for my return, but should these plans follow my ideal timeline, this year could also be my last living in the United States.

Leaving the States does not mean I will never visit; my sister will graduate high school next year, and at some point my best friend will be married. These people are incredibly dear to me, and if at all possible, I would love to attend these memorials in their lives. Hopefully I will also be able to take a vacation every several years to see those I love in the U.S.

But nothing is certain.

This Thanksgiving could be my last with my extended family, the paternal relatives I grew up with for the first 17 years of my life. My transition to college and my immediate family’s move across the country has prepared me for the long-term separation, but the ache of being away from my cousins on holidays has not grown much easier over the past few years. I will savor this last, precious Thanksgiving with my family.

This year could hold my last Christmas with my immediate family and maternal relatives as well. This last would have happened anyway when I begin a family for myself, but now I am realizing our last Christmas together could potentially be now, this year, in 2016. Bing Crosby put it well when he crooned, “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.”

A mouse-bear I made of snow after the February 2013 blizzard in Connecticut. PC: jeanni Bennett

A mouse-bear I made of snow after the February 2013 blizzard in Connecticut. PC: jeanni Bennett

It could also my last time to see beautiful, beautiful snow for a long time. Some New Englanders yearn to move away from the cold, but I always loved my home state of Connecticut with all its seasons and its snowy winters. In Illinois we get a small amount of snow as well, and it transforms the landscape. It makes everything new. I will miss this.

As a senior in college, I hope to soak up most of the lasts. Some can hurry up and pass – I am quite excited to be finished with the academic aspect of school, honestly – but I do want to make the most of my time on Mu Kappa Cabinet and with my worship team. I want to make the most of my time with friends and family when I see them on holiday breaks in a few months. I want to see my best friend again and finally meet the man who stole her heart.

I value relationships. For this reason, I will treasure my time with my housemates and friends in Illinois as well as any time I have with my family and friends elsewhere in the States. Yet for this same reason, I am also itching to return to DRC. As I prepare for many joyous firsts in my life after college, I thank God for the blessed lasts.

 

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When God Said No to Shalom

Last spring break, I was grieving. My college was under spiritual attack, a man had just broken my heart and I found out that I was not accepted into the Shalom Community.

The Shalom Community, which began in fall 2013, is comprised of two houses, one male and one female, as part of Housing and the Office of Multicultural Development. It exists to further racial reconciliation on campus. The houses are intentionally multicultural, and the students living there are required to take a sociology course titled “Race and Ethnic Relations.” They live together much like a normal on-campus house, but the educational aspect differentiates the Community from other houses. The Shalom Houses also meet once a week, sometimes for discussions on race related topics, sometimes to share stories and sometimes simply to have fun. Occasionally they host a campus-wide event as well.

Everyone expected I would be accepted into Shalom. I’m all about racial reconciliation, after all. Since my freshman year, the first year the houses existed, I had planned on living there. In fact, I had planned my college life around being in the Shalom Community.

Then, just before spring break, my friends and I heard the news. Iliana was in. Jen was in. Christy was in. I was not. We were all shocked.

When I ran to the bathroom to weep, I bumped into two of my friends who had just heard the exciting news that they were accepted. They graciously mourned with me even as they rejoiced for themselves.

Over spring break and in the following weeks, one housing option after another failed me. Most of my friends were in Shalom, and the rest already had plans. I asked about eleven different groups of people about joining them, but they always ended up finding a “better fit” instead. With few weeks left in the school year and no housing options for the summer or fall, I was desperate and broken. I felt unwanted and rejected.

I understood why I had not been accepted into Shalom House: They told me they had many good options and hated saying no to anyone, but they had to choose, and they knew I’d continue to pursue racial reconciliation on my own. I was encouraged despite my grief. But I still didn’t have a place to live.

I had been searching for housing both on and off campus, although off campus housing is limited to a quota and is not often granted to rising juniors. Miraculously, Housing approved the option. I continued to search, walking through nearby neighborhoods, asking church friends, even knocking on a door of what I’d mistakenly been told was an off campus house of college girls.

One evening I visited another church friend to ask if her family would have room for me. As I sat in her kitchen, crying in my fear of being homeless, she and her husband fed me fruit and shared their stories of not knowing where they would go for the summer up to the day before and how God provided. With their daughter and grandson moving in, they didn’t think it would be wise for me to live there, but they prayed over me and sent me home with money and—a luxury at the time—a couple bananas.

A few days later, that friend called to notify me about a house one of her other children had described to her. She urged, “Here’s the lady’s number. Call her now!!” While on the line with her, that number called me. I returned the call as soon as I hung up with my friend, and within fifteen minutes I was being picked up by a stranger to visit the house.

Felicity K Day 1

PC: Rebekah Haworth

We drove four blocks through the dark, and I was greeted by a five year old girl with curly blond hair, who I learned was the youngest of six. They showed me the basement—the kitchenette with a washing machine and dryer, the bathroom, the rooms for rent. Utilities were included in the low monthly price. The house was near campus. The little girl was smiley and ticklish. I returned to my dorm excited.

A few days later, we finalized the housing deal. Two weeks later, I moved in for the summer and beheld my new home for the first time in daylight: a brick house with a row of bushes on the left side, a maple tree out front and a kindergarten sign by the door.

I have lived there for ten months now, and I have become part of the family, the Haworths. Over the summer, the oldest girls “officially fake adopted me,” and just this past week, the youngest told me I am “basically like a big sister.” My relationships differ depending on the person, but I have grown close to the family and enjoy going home each evening to hang out with them. I love having a home to which I can return on break without having the temporary feel of a dorm from which I would be expelled.

Yet I am often included by this year’s Shalom Community as well. My friends in Shalom honor me by counting me as part of the houses. When other students assume I am in Shalom, I correct them, but my friends butt in and affirm that I am basically a part of Shalom. Last semester I spent time there daily. Although we have all been busy and I have been hiding out my house a lot more this semester, they still count me as part of them. For example, the other day one of my Shalom friends asked if I was going home, and when I replied that I was indeed going to my house to make dinner, she said, “No, I meant home with me.” Moments like this cause me feel loved, although I praise God that I am part of the Haworth household as well.

For many months I did not realize why I had not been accepted into Shalom House. As new friends wait to see if they are accepted into next year’s Shalom Community, my emotions are flavored like salted, bittersweet chocolate chips. I am sad that I will graduate from Wheaton College without having lived at Shalom — or at least that I will never be able to say I lived there. But I know now that I could not afford to live on campus. I know I need the space to get away and be alone off campus. I also know I love living with the family. At last I can see how God’s plans are infinitely better than mine.

To the new Shalomers, congratulations! God is going to work awesome things in and through you via the Shalom Community. And to those who are not accepted this year, I understand and am sorry. If you are sad, take time to grieve. Continue to pursue racial reconciliation via education and life style, e.g. social circles and future decisions. Trust in God’s faithfulness and provision even as you grieve. For all of you, God is at work, and he is with you.

 

 

Surprise Thanksgiving trip through New England: a photo account

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At 3:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, I left my house in Wheaton. At 6 a.m., I flew from Chicago O’Hare to New England for a surprise trip home.

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Besides my parents, my cousin Jonathan was the only one outside of Wheaton who knew I had no way home. I’d tried all semester to find a ride to CT for Thanksgiving, but everyone from CT was either flying back or staying around campus. A week before break, I still had no way home. Because I couldn’t afford a plane ticket, Jonathan let many of my other cousins, aunts and uncles know so they could chip in to buy me one. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without you,” he told me when I thanked him. I told my dad about God’s provision before another cousin asked me to keep it a surprise, but my mom and sister had no idea I was going to Thanksgiving with them.

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My Aunt Carol and cousin Becky picked me up from the Providence airport, and we visited a park in Rhode Island that Wednesday. Here I pretended to be queen of the castle.

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Becky and I ran up hills and climbed trees. I loved seeing hills, rock faces, and tunnels of trees again! New England is beautiful–especially Connecticut! 😉

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Rhode Island has a unique beauty, though. It’s quaint, with lots of little streets. We had fun adventuring around the city (a.k.a. being lost on the way to the park).

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Then I visited a tropical island for a minute…I mean, we stopped at a smoothie place in Massachusetts since I hadn’t eaten. Next we continued on to my aunt’s house in New Bedford, MA, where I played with a three year old the family nannies, ate lunch, and napped for eight straight hours. (Oops. I had meant to play family games, but apparently two hours of sleep before a red eye flight exhausts a girl.) I woke up for a couple hours to eat dinner at 10:30 p.m. and wrap presents, and then I slept for another six or seven hours until the morning!

 

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We proceeded on to Connecticut, my beautiful old home, for the family picnic in Cochester.

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At the family picnic, I met some soon-to-be relatives, baby London and cousin Matt’s fiance N’Gella. I also surprised mom by being there. It took forever to get her attention, but she finally turned around and saw me. Becky Bailey captured her initial reaction on camera. Mom’s words upon seeing me? “Oh now that’s not even fair.” (She didn’t like that I had deceived her.)

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But mom was happy I was there!

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*mom hugs*

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My sister Hannah was excited, too. She exclaimed, “WHAT?!” and then did a jig.

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While my dad made mashed potatoes for most of the 52 people in attendance, I mashed a small bowl for the dairy free among us.

Bennett family photo Thanksgiving 2015

After eating, we played football. I made a touchdown at the start of the first game! We ended up losing that game, but my team was 2-1 in the end. Typically those who play football shovel coal afterwards since that’s how Aunt Penni and Uncle Rick heat their house for the winter, but they had already done that, so we went straight to the pie eating, conversing and hymn singing. I spent 10 hours total at their house this Thanksgiving Day!

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On the way to the house in which I was staying overnight, my subconscious dream came true: we went through Hubbard Park and saw the lights!! I hadn’t seen them for two or three years!

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The lit globe has always been my favorite.

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On Friday morning I went to Cheshire Coffee with my friend Jared. It was SO good to catch up with him!! He was the only friend I’d told about my visit since I thought I wouldn’t have time to see anybody. I also thought I wouldn’t be able to visit my old towns, Cheshire and North Haven, but both expectations were surpassed: we drove through both towns, and since Jared had to work at 9:30 a.m., I had the rest of the day to see other people. First I had the pleasure of visiting my old hangout, Music Center of North Haven. I even saw Mark, Mary and Donna Minotti!

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Then, since I was free until 2:30 p.m., Daddy Vecchio picked me up from Music Center and brought me to East Haven, where I saw the whole family–including cousin RiRi. Tyler was even home from Niger, which was a surprise to me!

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I loved being back with my second family, the Vecchios! We’ve all grown, but some things definitely stayed the same. 😉

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Mia and I played our original song, “I Like Cats,” as well as “Safe and Sound,” “Oceans ” and others on guitar, just like we used to do every weekend in high school. Although I hadn’t seen nor sung with her since May 2014, we remembered our harmonies! Then Mama and I dropped her off at work because she’s an adult now! (Side note: I feel so old when I say how much time has passed since I saw my old friends and family!)

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Silas practiced blowing bubbles–he just learned on Tuesday–and Mama fed me. She and I talked with her for an hour or so. I can’t express how happy I am to have seen them! Then several other cousins tag-teamed to get me back to the Providence airport that Friday night, and by 10p.m. I had landed in Chicago again. What a beautiful whirlwind of a break!

 

 

Independence is more difficult than I’d expected

My heart is in turmoil.

I was always the little bird Kessie from the Winnie the Pooh movie “Seasons of Giving” who grows up under Rabbit’s care before taking flight one winter. I always cried when she left, but we always knew I’d be that bird.

I am caught between reveling in my independence as a young American adult and longing for my family, both immediate and extended, as someone who values family community.

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richb / manic-expresion.com

Part of my struggle is that I victimize myself. I can phrase things in my head to make things sound worse than they are. I imagine telling my future children that I left home when I was 17. So young!! Of course, there’s more to the story than that. My leaving for college early was actually an incredible, perfectly planned gift from God. And I haven’t gone back for several reasons, one being that I don’t have just one home anymore. To where would I return?

Connecticut is my old home. It’s where my old friends are, but I don’t fit in there anymore. Last I checked, I’m the only one who went more than two or three hours away (as compared to my 15 hour drive from there to my college). Everyone else still has their families and hangs out with many of the same people from high school. They’ve grown and I’ve grown, but we’ve done so in different ways and with different people. Sometimes I envy that they are all still together, but I’m also grateful for my vibrant, trustworthy community at Wheaton. Here I have found a place of love and belonging and growth. Here I have become an adult. Though I’m only 19, Connecticut has already become my childhood memory home.

Charlotte is my parents’ home. They’ve been thriving there for one and a half years, and their church is wonderful, but I personally have no friends there. I miss my family all the time, and I only get to see them for one day on Thanksgiving and then over Christmas break—anything else is a bonus. But I’d rather not live there and be lonely, not knowing anyone but them. They don’t have space in their rental house for me anyway. This is just how life is now. I don’t belong in Charlotte. I will always belong to my family; my mom trained me to remember that I am a Christian and that I am a Bennett! But I am an American, and I am a bit of a free spirit, and I do not belong with them anymore.

What other place could I go? The Democratic Republic of Congo? I’d love to visit, but I haven’t been able to do so yet. Nairobi? Rwanda? I’d go if someone would pay for my flight and then help me find a job! I have connections with whom I could stay. But those places aren’t options right now, not this summer. (Maybe next year! I keep praying for an opportunity to go to eastern Congo.)

So what place is left? Wheaton is. Wheaton is my current home. Here I have journalism connections, a steady job, a home church, a family from whom I rent and who is fast becoming dear to me, and college friends who live here with family or are also staying for the summer. This is home now. This is my current independence.

But being independent isn’t the end goal of my life. (Following the Lord Jesus is.) While I enjoy living “on my own,” I also value family. I value community. Right now I have to participate in a larger family, God’s family, and rely on a network of friends and fellow Christians rather than my kin for everyday-life support. (I still keep communicate with my immediate family often and rely on them for other things.) But as a loyal and emotional person, I deeply miss my mom, dad, and sister as well as my brother who lives even further from them.

Sometimes I pity myself. Today is one of the days where I’m having to battle that. Because many of my friends are third culture kids and may only see their families every two years, I know I shouldn’t complain. I get to see my family at least once a year, maybe even every seven months. That amount of time will only increase as I prepare to be a missionary, and I need to face the reality that I have left my family. I’m getting better about doing that, but it’s worse when holidays come, and I start getting especially homesick around the six month mark.

The value of family community wars in my heart with my independence. I’m happy in Wheaton this summer, and I’m having a blast with my new friends here, but I’m still grappling with living as a young independent far from all my relatives.