Equipo Bolivia Vuelve

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We are home.

Hey Restoration!  Our Bolivia Team arrived home around 9pm on Sunday night.  Thank you for reading our emails and blogs, for praying, and for generously helping with our trip costs.  Some of you came to the Bowlivia Dinner, others of you dropped your kids with us for a Date Night, lots of you gave specific gifts to help with flights, visas, and thousands of Perler Beads (more on that, soon).  Restoration gives so generously of its time, prayers, and money.  I am always grateful and humbled by your participation when the opportunity presents itself.  Thank you.

I get the honor of offering some initial thoughts as we re-enter to North American life and culture.  You will hear from other members of our team over the next couple of weeks.

Resto People are Incredible People.

Our team started meeting as a small group during the spring trimester.  This is the way we have been prepping for mission trips for about 5 years.  It gives us a great opportunity to get to know each other, to pray for each other, and to prepare to serve together.  Over and over, I said thanks to God for the incredible people He put on this team.  We were lead by the dynamic trio of Endel Liias, Kate Liias, and Eva-Elizabeth Chisholm.  They were extraordinary:  calm, attentive to details, and compassionate towards the rest of us.  At least half the team was fluent in Spanish and another 1/4 could function well on their own in Spanish conversation.  That left a few people like me with LOTS of help when we got stuck tripping over our limited vocabulary.  We loved living in a guest house together and doing compline each night.  We worked hard leading a retreat and serving lots of kids.  We laughed, mourned, and were touched by the things God is doing in Bolivia.

We have this thing called RestoGoes (look for the yellow flyer in the narthex).  We try to get teams to our partners in Cambodia (Jan2017), West Asia (Nov2017), and Bolivia (Aug2017) each year.  One of the best parts of RestoGoes are the people who go with you.  The next opportunity is West Asia in November.  Want to join an incredible team?

La Trinidad Anglican Church

Most of us left Dulles at 11:30am on Thur, Aug 3.  We arrived in Cochabamba around 8am on Fri, Aug 4.  It’s a long way.

Our first task was to lead a retreat (Sat-Mon) for La Trinidad Anglican Church.  The format was familiar to us–  it’s just like our Restoration Fall Retreat (10/14-15, registration is open, last year we maxed out, don’t miss it!).

For 4 months, our team had worked on stories in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus has a meal with a group of people (there are over half a dozen of them).  Our retreat theme was:  En la mesa con Jesus.
Over the course of the weekend, we had six sessions where one team member taught the passage and a second team member gave a testimony for how that story impacted their life.  The combo was so good.  Our team had prepared with excellence.  Many of the team taught and shared in Spanish.  Some of us were translated by other members of the team.

Before we went, we discussed cultural differences we would encounter.  We used the phrase–  it’s not right or wrong, it’s just different.  One of those differences was how we view vulnerability.  Restoration is a church that views vulnerability as a strength.  In our small groups and friendships, we want to be known, to be sincere, to not hide.  Vulnerability as a strength came out in the way our team courageously shared their testimonies and it was very attractive.

La Trinidad in particular and perhaps Bolivian culture in general views vulnerability as a weakness (again, not right or wrong, just different).  During the retreat, the people of La Trinidad greatly appreciated the vulnerability of our team and their appreciation lead to long discussions of how their church might become more transparent with each other–  for the sake of the Gospel and the healing work that Jesus wants to do in us.

Our team was grateful to be able to bring the gift of our stories and grateful to see how the Holy Spirit used them to bless our friends at La Trinidad during the retreat.

I hope you will be quick to sign up for a fall small group where you can be known and build friendships with other folks at Restoration.

Niños Con Valor

From Tuesday to Saturday we volunteered with the organization, Niños Con Valor.  It was a rewarding combination of affection, hard work, crafts, conversation, prayer, and learning.

There was a narrative that became very real to me that week.  We had a presentation on the history of Bolivia that taught us the economic and political fragility of that country (the presentation was entitled, ‘Bolivia Exists!’).  Bolivia is not a powerful economy compared with its neighbors.  In addition,  we were working with children who had been orphaned or abandoned.  Many of them had special needs and almost half had HIV.  These children became so precious to us.  Yet, according to the currency and value assessment of most of the world, they could be dismissed as ‘the least of these.’  The staff and volunteers of NCV are truly standing in the gap for about 40 kids that might not have any other place to turn.  It was our deep, profound privilege to get to serve alongside them and to experience the expansion of our hearts in exuberant affection for these children.

Now…

I loved our time in Bolivia.  I believe we did some good.  I know we built relational partnerships that will continue to strengthen.  As we grow our work with RILA, and dream about a future Spanish service, and partner with our good friends at Casa Chirilagua, and wonder about how God will materialize our hopes for Incarnation Anglican Church in South Arlington, I know that this companionship in Bolivia is a part of our Restoration story.  I love trusting that God is leading us and coordinating us.  It is such an adventure!

Good to be home.  See you on Sunday.

-David

He has taken my little, and given me much

#RestoBolivia2 – Team reflections #1

Tu fe ha salvado; ve te en paz.

RestorationMission 2These are the words of Jesus as he blesses the woman who washed his feet with her tears. A simple sentence:

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

These are the words of Jesus that have been on repeat (in Spanish and in English) since Sunday morning, after Laurel and Desiree shared testimonies and teaching with members of La Trinidad, the church here in Cochabamba. Words that carry blessing and hope.

I wasn’t ready for this trip. We’d put months of preparation in to it – some of us had literally been talking about this trip since we left Cochabamba last July. Plans were set – we knew who would be speaking – we knew who would be leading kids time – hours of prayer and encouragement and listening and learning were put into this trip. And still my heart was not quite ready. I was tired, struggling with some familiar voices of shame and the question of “has it been enough?”

Late Friday night I sent around an update for our prayer partners. I was exhausted after a full day of travel and little sleep, and in all honesty struggling to find words. But last night my words were re-read to me, and I realized that the prayer I’d written for our friends at La Trinidad was in many ways a prayer for myself: “that they will be able to enter into the next few days with ready hearts.”

Now, on the other side of the retreat, I am grateful for the ways God took my little and reminded me that he is enough. Our plans were used and changed and shared in ways that we didn’t always understand, but they did not return empty. So many of us were privileged to see many at La Trinidad share their stories in new and vulnerable ways. There was weeping and rejoicing, celebration and struggle.

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We also discovered that the Hanke family knows a thing or two about llamas

As we reflected on the story of the woman weeping at Jesus’ feet, I shared with our small group that as I imagined myself in her place, there was an overwhelming sense that the need for healing was greater than the weight of shame that could leave her (me) isolated and alone – that risking the judgment of the people watching was worth the relief that would come from Jesus’ grace.

 

This is my benediction: Your faith has saved you; go in peace

~Eva-Elizabeth

RILA and Matthew 25

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The Restoration Immigration Legal Aid (RILA) team is excited to announce that RILA has received a $25,000 matching grant from the Matthew 25 Initiative. This initiative started with a vision from Archbishop Foley Beach and his desire to use a generous grant from an anonymous donor to help churches reach the poor and needy in their communities.

These granted funds will enable RILA to hire a part-time Program Manager to expand and solidify the work already being done. It will also provide a small stipend to RILA’s Intake Coordinator.

Currently, RILA is serving over 50 immigrant families, most of whom are seeking asylum. This is hard work, requiring patience, perseverance, and dedication.  In each case, the RILA team invests time to build relationships with our clients and their families, many of whom have stories of trauma that led to their being here in the United States. In fact, many immigrant families that RILA represents fled their home countries within days or weeks of having their lives – or their children’s lives – threatened. In some cases, they had already been harmed and were  forced to leave to avoid being harmed further.

A handful of RILA clients are children who journeyed to the United States alone, fleeing imminent violence in their neighborhoods.  The RILA team is committed to walking alongside immigrant families and advocating on their behalf.  Though the stories we hear are heartbreaking, RILA has begun to see some successes.  However, we also believe we are successful as we listen well to our client’s stories and show compassion, in the name and way of Jesus.

We are SO thankful for the large and diverse group of volunteers at Restoration that enable this work to be done. We are continually humbled and inspired by our volunteers’ hard work and willing hearts.  Working together as the church to accomplish the enormous task of running a neighborhood immigration legal aid clinic is such a joy for all of us.  From praying to note taking to providing hospitality and translation, each RILA case is surely a team effort, demonstrating the body of Christ serving Restoration’s neighbors in need.

Support RILA here to help us meet our match!

If you are interested in learning more about RILA or getting involved, don’t hesitate to reach out. We are specifically looking for volunteers with fundraising experience, as the Matthew 25 initiative grant is a matching one. But translators, attorneys, researchers and general clinic volunteers are always welcome! Our holistic vision is to join God in the renewal of all things and to witness the transformative power of loving and serving our neighbors through giving immigration legal aid to the immigrant families in our neighborhoods. We’d love to have you join us on this journey!

You can learn more about the clinic here.

With thanks from the RILA team.

 

AFAC fun!

20170709_215356Summer fun….and with a good cause!  Come join us this Sunday to pick up fresh produce from the Columbia Pike Farmer’s Market and then sort it and bag it to give at the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC).  Great opportunity to meet people, get a free bright green t-shirt, and check out some fruit and veggies. 12:15pm- 3:30pm.

http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0e4ea5ac23a2f94-afac2

 

Matt’s Picture Movie Review: Resto Cambo team reflections #5

As I was flipping through my images from Cambodia and reflecting on the many good gifts that God gave me while I was there, I was surprised by how comprehensive a review of the trip I saw by holding the arrow key down on my image viewer.  Without further ado, here is my RestoCambo2017 Album with just a few tweaks.  Enjoy!

If you have questions about any quick bit that you saw, I would be happy to answer any of them.  Feel free to ask questions in the comments below.

-Matt

Some ideas to walk alongside refugees

Refugee MapWondering how to respond to the national conversation about refugees?  Here are some thoughts and ideas to motivate your prayer and action.

We are compelled to love our neighbor.  Jesus assumed that His followers would.

We are convicted by the clear teaching of the Bible.  Here is a small sample of the 51 mentions of the ‘sojourner’ (what we would call a refugee or immigrant) which consistently caution against oppression and encourage justice and compassion.

  • Exodus 22:21    “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
  • Deuteronomy 10:18  “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt”.
  • Deuteronomy 27:19    “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’
  • Zecheriah 7:10 “…do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”

We are grateful for organizations like World Relief which has served the vulnerable and marginalized for over 70 years and is sounding the clarion call to serve the refugee and immigrant in our midst.

We are grateful for a united shout from Christian leaders for the current administration to reconsider it’s proposed reduction on refugee resettlement.  All of Restoration’s clergy signed this excellent letter last week.

We know that there is more that we can do to serve those who are most in danger of being lost or forgotten.  As opportunities come, we will invite you to come with us… because we must, because Jesus was a refugee who had to hide in a foreign land when His life was in danger (Matthew 2:13-23);  because God our Father told us to welcome the stranger;  because we should assume that fear, racism, and greed are always at work in our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) and they get rooted out by deliberate choice to say no to them;  because we are called to love people, to serve and not be served (Mark 10:45), to lay down our lives for our friends (John 15:13).  

Here are the opportunities this week:

  1.  Wednesday, Feb 15 at 12:15pm at Restoration:  45 minutes Mid-Week Eucharist with a short homily by Amy Rowe showing us God’s heart for the refugee.
  2. Wednesday, Feb 15 at 7:30pm at The Falls Church Anglican:  “In response to all the chaos and angst over the travel ban, we are having a prayer night.  We will spend time in confession, repentance and prayer for the church, the nation and for refugees and immigrants – all are welcome!”
  3. Sunday, Feb 19 after the 11am service at Restoration:  “Two West Asia church leaders will be sharing with Restoration about what God is doing among Syrian refugees in the Middle East.  Pastor R. serves a West Asian church in the ‘city between the continents.’  He is the head of the mercy ministry arm of an alliance of West Asian churches.  Pastor D. is a leader with the Samaritan Purse branch in West Asia and is also the director of First Hope Association.  FHA is the first West Asian Christian non-profit organization in West Asia that focuses solely on Syrian refugee ministry in the Middle East.”  Come have lunch and hear their story.
  4. Read.  Listen.  Ask Questions.  Did you hear the podcast on This American Life?  Did you read the text from David Griffin’s homily at our Mid-Week Eucharist a few weeks ago?  Have you read this article in the New Yorker about immigrants?  What has been helpful to you as you sort through your own response to what is happening in our country?
  5. Did you know that the volunteers at RiLA [Restoration Immigration Legal Aid] have focused their work on displaced persons who are seeking political asylum in the United States because of the threat of violence in their home country?  If you have found yourself outraged, sentimental, or confused about events in our country in the last few weeks and if you have wondered, “what can I do?”  The easiest and closest place to start is the first floor of Restoration Anglican Church on Wednesday, February 22 at 6pm.  We have dozens of people of all ages who come to our church hoping that our RiLA team can help them legally find a way to stay in our country.  There are opportunities for you to serve our guests–  to play with their kids, to translate (looking for Spanish speakers), to say, “Welcome!”, to serve snacks, to pray.  If you are feeling a desire to do something, come do something with RiLA.  If you are willing, we have a way you can serve, just ask.

So that’s this week.

I am sure more opportunities will emerge as we faithfully make ourselves available to God for the work He is doing.  I invite you to jump in with us.

-David

Surprises in Cambodia: team reflections #4

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Several days ago, as I was preparing for a workshop session that I would be facilitating on the Khmer Pastors’ retreat, Liz reminded me to leave room to be surprised. She was right. The Holy Spirit so often surprises me in the midst of the mundane, and I operate best when I assume a posture of openness and flexibility to those surprises.

And so, on my final day in Phnom Penh, I sat in Brown’s Coffee (basically the Cambodian Northside Social) and reflected on my time, making special note of the ways God had surprised me. I wanted to share a few of these surprises with the Resto community that has so faithfully prayed for us. And as you read, who knows? Perhaps God will surprise you too – with a gentle nudge to pray for Cambodia, with a desire for greater involvement in outreach, or with a word or image that particularly speaks to your life here in Arlington.

Surprise 1: Loving Cambodia. I have traveled widely, and I am always interested in experiencing new places and cultures. I expected the same from Cambodia: interest, novelty, enjoyment. But instead, I fell in love. Before I even stepped on the plane, as I sifted through the English-Khmer Bible to prepare materials for the trip, the beautiful script resonated deeply with me. With Google Translate as my linguistic assistant, I began decoding numerals, days of the week, and punctuation. Did you know that Khmer is not a tonal language? That it’s derived from Sanscrit and Pali (the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism)? That the main row of characters are the consonants, and the little notations above and below are the vowel sounds? That there are no spaces between words? Like this:

ការអធិស្ឋានល្ងាច

That’s Khmer for evening prayer. Beautiful, right?

20170128_171533My love for Cambodia started with its script and continued through Phnom Penh and Kep. Walking the vibrant, friendly streets; riding tuk-tuks (moto taxis) around town; watching people grill squid and chip ice and boil cockles in the market; eating glutinous sesame rice cooked over coals in banana peels;  women waist-deep in the ocean pulling in their crab traps; monkeys crossing the streets; strangely translated restaurant names (“The Slimming Foods and Puppies House”); I loved it all. I was surprised. God gave me joy where I expected mere interest.

Surprise 2: God speaks loudly in silence. For the first part of our trip, we supported a team from Christ Church Austin as they conducted a silent retreat for members of the international congregation of the Anglican church in Phnom Penh (Church of Christ Our Peace).  It is a strange thing to facilitate a silent retreat; there is no verbal feedback mechanism by which you can evaluate people’s level of engagement with the material. As we moved quietly behind the scenes – arranging meals, setting up tables, preparing the liturgy – the participants silently disappeared to who knows where, doing who knows what.

On the final morning, the retreatants broke their silence with a 1-2 minute reflection on what they had experienced. Each person had received a helpful image, word, scripture, or answer from God. One man, an IT consultant, had composed a stunning poem about the strength of God’s goodness. One woman, a burned-out aid worker, had been reassured of God’s fatherly care by the sight of a baby monkey on its father’s back. Another woman described lying on the roof of our hotel under the stars one night, singing praises to the heavens. Others described powerful moments of healing and hope and comfort.

God speaks in silence. He fills whatever empty spaces we create for him. He comes to us in our rest and our surrender.

Surprise 3: Long-term, gradual, incremental work does add up!  So often, I am hardened and skeptical about good work being done in the world. I know how complex global problems are and how fraught with setbacks and unintended consequences their solutions can be. I begin to doubt that sustainable transformation is really possible. And yet that is precisely the story of International Justice Mission (IJM) in Cambodia, where they have combatted sex trafficking for over a decade. Again and again, I heard people talk about the remarkable transformation that IJM has brought to Cambodia. Though sex trafficking still exists, it’s now an acknowledged societal problem, one that the Cambodian government, police, and courts are increasingly well equipped to tackle on their own. And some communities have been completely transformed. We visited one village that used to be a center of child prostitution and walked down an infamous street once lined with child brothels, where children as young as 5 could be bought and sold. Now, thanks to tireless work by IJM and by Agape International Mission (AIM) over many years, children in that town are being protected, rehabilitated, educated, and equipped for a productive life outside the sex trade. Those brothels are now schools, training centers, churches – places of healing and flourishing. Change is possible. God’s light can penetrate even the darkest corners of humanity.

Surprise 4: Immigrants are immigrants. In that same community where we witnessed such incredible transformation of the child sex trade, we also witnessed the sad reality of immigrant communities everywhere: marginalization and disdain. This community was home to many Vietnamese immigrants, widely mistrusted and disliked by ethnic Khmer. These Vietnamese are highly vulnerable to sex trafficking and exploitative labor practices. They are linguistically isolated from Khmer schools and society. They are poor. They are different.

It was a surreal moment to witness the difficulties facing this immigrant community while hearing news about the increased vulnerability of immigrant communities back home. Immigrants everywhere are vulnerable, and I’m thankful for the protective and healing work that AIM is doing in this particular community. May we all be so courageous, standing with the most vulnerable among us and working tirelessly for their protection.

Surprise 5: Worship and prayer are universal languages. My moments of deepest joy came in worship and prayer. As Liz Gray wrote in our final email update, “God gave us a ‘thin space’ to intercede,” and he truly did. Whether praying blessing in English over rural Khmer pastors; praying for healing with individuals we’d never spoken to on the silent retreat; or praying the words of the liturgy simultaneously in multiple languages; God’s presence in our prayers was palpable and transcended language barriers. Similarly, we were gifted with momentary glimpses of heaven as we sang 1990s praise songs simultaneously, exuberantly, in Khmer and English.

Surprise 6: There is only one Jesus. This should seem obvious. But because I’m interested in other religions and cultures, and because I firmly believe “all truth is God’s truth,” and because I can find redemptive threads in almost any cultural narrative, sometimes I lose sight of the absolute uniqueness of Jesus. I wrote an earlier blog post on one of my many moments realizing this in Cambodia.

Another such moment came during a painful visit to the Killing Fields on our final day. The Killing Fields are one of many designated places of remembrance of the tragedy of Pol Pot’s regime. There, inmates from Tuol Sleng prison (a place of horrific torture which we visited earlier in our trip) were brought to be killed and dumped in mass graves. Bits of bone and fragments of clothing still litter the ground, brought to the surface with every rain.  The earth still takes the shape of what were once mass graves, rising and falling in unnatural mounds. Several massive trees of significance are marked: the tree against which children were killed, and the tree from which loudspeakers were hung to blare revolutionary music to cover the screams.

Along the path through the fields is another tree, dedicated by Buddhist monks several years ago. It is just a young sapling, protected by a fence but drooping sadly nonetheless, bearing a sign: “Tree of Hope and Peace.”  It was at this tree that I had another moment of gratitude for the uniqueness of Jesus. This little sapling of hope and peace looked so flimsy and ineffective against the monstrous trees of torture nearby. But Jesus himself is our hope and peace. Not a flimsy, symbolic, wishful-thinking sort of hope and peace, but a robust, embodied one. Because he lived and suffered as a human like us, he is compassionately with us in our pain. He does not explain away the pain of existence or seek to escape it, as Buddhism teaches; he fully embraces it in his suffering, dying, human body. And because he rose again, we have a confident assurance that there is powerful healing, redemption, and restoration waiting in the wings just beyond our pain.

As I stood there, I remembered another tree of hope and peace from Revelation 22:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life . . .. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

And in the midst of a place of enormous suffering and deep darkness, with a hopelessly inept tree before me, I prayed the only thing I could think to pray, echoing some of the last words of that same chapter of Revelation: Come, Lord Jesus!

~Amy Rowe

resto cambo reflections #2: Light and Darkness

As I reflect on my time in Cambodia, I am struck most significantly by the contrast of light and darkness; hope and despair.  I see light in so many wonderful people living and working here to better the lives of others – people who are pushing back the darkness of extreme poverty, sexual exploitation and animism to share true hope.  Hope that is not a feeling of expectation, but the certain hope found in Christ.  As I think about my time here, there are verses from the first chapter of the gospel of John that frame what I was experiencing.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it:  

IMG_7729For almost a decade, I have prayed for a notorious red light district in Phnom Penh called.  I learned of this area through the International Justice Mission and their undercover work here freeing young girls who were sexually exploited.  Over the years I have prayed for the girls who were sold into sexual slavery, the pimps who terrorized them and the people who have come to change the culture of this place.  I never imagined I would get to walk through the very same place.  It was deeply moving to walk through what was once an infamous red light district and visit the school, factory, gym, halfway house and other establishments that have replaced the brothels.

There came a man sent from God…he came as a witness to testify about the Light so that all might believe through him:

I am humbled by the wonderful people I have met here in Cambodia. People who, because of their love for  Jesus live, work and serve others here.  I met Chad, Kimberly and Rachel who work the former red light district training teachers, running the school, overseeing a half-way house for abused women and children, and using donations to purchase and repurpose brothels.  I learned of the Brazilian doctor who has lived as a volunteer in Cambodia for over 5 years providing free medical care to the residents in this same community.  I watched a very famous Cambodian kick boxer volunteering his time teaching and coaching young athletes in a gym that was formerly a brothel.  I have eaten dinners with Jesse and Sarah as well as Gregory and Heidi who live in Cambodia with their families where they love, lead and serve through the Church of Christ our Peace in Phnom Penh.  I met Danielle, who runs an orphanage; Steve, who works for an aid group; Amy, the professional photographer who is volunteering her craft to provide photographs for aid agencies and literally dozens of others.

There was the true Light, which coming into the world, enlightens every man.  He was in the world, and the world was made through Him and the world did not know him:

IMG_7673The main religion in Cambodia is Animism – the belief that all things – animals, plants, rocks and artifacts are alive and have spiritual qualities.  While here I have seen people offering sacrifices to the flagpole (Cambodia’s most powerful spirit – see photo); statues in temples; and deceased relatives.  I have watched as even extremely poor people set out fruits and meats so the spirits of their dead ancestors could enjoy the essence of the items or burn fake money as an offering  of well being to the deceased.  As I have observed, I have also prayed for each one of them to  turn from praying to inanimate objects and long for God.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:

Almost every morning, I have gone out early to enjoy a run (I don’t have access to a bike here ;-).  In the quiet of the morning, amidst the smell of burning trash, I have seen; waved to; smiled at so many Cambodians on my runs.  In each of them I see a small pilot light – a deep desire – to know and be known; to love and be loved; to see and be seen.  My prayer for each of them has been that bit of light in each of them draw them to God.

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I hope you will pray with me for the people of Cambodia.

*Thank you for reading this far.  It has been a joy to share a glimpse of my experience.  Please contact me if you would like to see photos or learn more about my trip. 

-Mary Breed

resto cambo reflections #1: Birds at the Altar

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is named for its 600-year-old central pagoda, Wat Phnom (literally “Hill Pagoda”). We visited Wat Phnom on our second day in Cambodia. In addition to being a place of devotion and prayer, its grounds are also used for sex trafficking, sometimes in broad daylight. We silently prayed for each person we saw, especially those who appeared vulnerable to exploitation, as we walked the gently sloping hill of the temple grounds.

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When we reached the top of the hill where the main pagoda sits, the air was filled with burning incense, ringing bells, and gold banners waving in the breeze. Eight-tiered spires ascended to a single point in the sky, architectural representations of Buddhism’s eight-fold path to nothingness. Below those spires were small cages crammed with sparrows and swallows, waiting to be sold to temple-goers. These birds are part of an ancient Buddhist practice of freeing caged animals as an act of kindness, thus generating good karma. Though the practice originated in an attempt to protect and rescue vulnerable animals (e.g., chickens destined for the chopping block), it has evolved over the centuries. Now, the animals freed are rarely vulnerable and in need of protection; rather, the very act of capturing and caging them suppresses their immune systems and makes their survival nearly impossible. And the release of the birds, rather than simply a karmic good deed, has become a form of prayer to have one’s wishes satisfied. As the bird is released, so are the person’s hopes for, say, a good grade on an upcoming test; the strength to overcome addictions; a negative cancer scan; a “yes” to a marriage proposal.

IMG_7896As I watched these birds released, I noticed how most of them simply circled the wat a few times before landing, only to be captured, caged, and released again. And I found myself thinking that this bird-release practice isn’t so different from what we do at church each week. We capture up our longings and release them to God – through words, through prayer, and through the Eucharist. We use something we can touch and see – bread and wine – to express our faith in a vast unseen mystery. And we do it again and again, capturing and releasing our hopes to God, week in and week out. I was struck by how very human we all are, Cambodians and Arlingtonians alike: longing for our prayers to be heard; longing to encounter the divine; and using the earthy, tangible stuff all around us to express these longings.

But as I reflected further, I realized that the differences outweigh the similarities. Though it may feel like the Christian life is an endless repetition of capture-and-release to God, it isn’t. God is not far off in the sky, waiting for our birds to come his way. He is with us and in us. Our confessions and longings do not circle the sky and return to us empty; they are received by “him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” Though we share with Buddhists a penchant for tangible symbols (as all humans do), our symbols of bread and wine represent the body and blood of a resurrected person, a real event in human history, an act of once-and-for-all sacrificial love that demonstrate that God indeed is with us, loves us, hears us, and knows us.

A week after we visited Wat Phnom, we supported a silent retreat for Christian workers in Phnom Penh. This retreat was designed as a time of refreshment for people who pour themselves out in service to others in places of profound darkness and suffering. At the end of our time, one of the retreatants shared a scripture that had proved meaningful to her over the weekend. It, too, involved sparrows and swallows – the same birds used in the temple releases – but evokes a secure relationship with a loving God rather than futile repetition and empty hope:

“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.” Psalm 84:3

We do not release our prayers to God as acts of wishful thinking. Instead, we are invited to take up residence in the safety of his altar.

-Amy

RILA: just doing something…

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RILA has been holding monthly immigration legal aid clinics since March of this year. It has been our privilege to work with immigrant families in our neighborhood, to hear their stories, and advocate on their behalf.  We have been amazed at the passion, talents and commitment of the many volunteers from our congregation.

The people of Restoration make RILA possible!

Over the past several months, we have narrowed our focus to assisting immigrant families in applying for asylum, and, specifically, families who live in our neighborhoods.  Oftentimes, families seeking asylum are not able to secure affordable legal counsel because there are not enough non-profit organizations to meet the need, and private attorneys are prohibitively expensive.

Through a connection with Arlington Public Schools, we became aware of a student at a neighborhood school who needed help to file an application for asylum.  He is a teenager, who fled his home country in Central America due to a profound amount of violence in his city.  His home country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, outside of a war zone.

By the time we were aware of the student’s situation, there were only seven days before his deadline to file his application.  Because we want to prioritize helping those who have little to no resources, are a member of a vulnerable population, and live in our neighborhoods; we chose to take his case.

We worked with one of the assistant principals at his school, and the student, to complete and file his application for asylum in time.  It was a team effort!  We completed a task that normally takes a few months, in a few days.  This is just the first step in a long and often complicated process.  However, it is a critical step in giving this student the best possible chance at being granted asylum.

Later, the assistant principal we worked with sent us a note to say “thanks.”  She also said,

As I’ve worked with this population [of immigrant families] for almost 15 years now, I constantly meet folks who say, ‘I really wish there was something I could do.’  Yesterday I saw what happens when people just start doing something, and it was amazing.

This is the heart of RILA, which is rooted in the heart of the Gospel.  This is loving God with our whole hearts and loving our (immigrant) neighbors as ourselves.

~ Natalie Foote
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Liz adds: Would you like to get involved with RILA? There is always room for more volunteers! Reach out to Natalie, Michelle, Jason or me and we can get you connected (firstname@restorationarlington.org). No specific skills required, though attorneys, translators and people who can make coffee and smile are all particularly welcome! 
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