Harvey, Houses, and Hope

adult man in hat and teenagers on the roof of a one-story house with trees overhead

Youth and adults from First Christian Church in McKinney, Texas work together to replace the roof on a Harvey survivor’s home.

The congregation I serve is no stranger to hurricanes. In 2008, the roof on its education wing collapsed during Hurricane Ike. In the process of making repairs, our denomination built a mission station with camp-style bunk beds and shower facilities. For several years it housed volunteers for the recovery efforts, but then it lay dormant. We were called into action again as long-term Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts began.

Whenever natural disasters occur in the United States, people all over the country mobilize to help. Waters had not even receded when I was inundated with requests from church groups: wanting to schedule a mission trip as soon as possible, asking to be connected with families from my congregation in need, and offering donations of various kinds.

In the wake of a disaster, it’s possible to get so overwhelmed by the offers to help that a pastor might not know where to begin. Unfortunately, we must sometimes begin by saying No: No, please don’t come next week or even next month… there will be plenty of recovery work to do in six months, a year, and beyond. No, we don’t need any blankets, clothes, or toiletries – gift cards or donations to your favorite disaster response organization will have the biggest impact. Our instincts at giving and doing often run contrary to the needs on the ground.

Occasionally, a volunteer’s expectations can become incompatible with doing recovery work, where flexibility is key. In one exchange I emailed with the mission committee of a church in another state. At first, it seemed that they wanted to adopt our church, which had sustained some damage that was ultimately not covered by our insurance. It turned out that the minister emailing me and the chair of their mission committee had a miscommunication, and what they really wanted to do was adopt a family.

I identified a lovely family in my congregation who needed help and asked permission to share their information with the church that had contacted me. After a few more email exchanges, both the pastor and the mission chair ghosted me, and I never heard from them again. It was apparent to me that our real needs didn’t meet with their expectations of what helping us would look like.

As Christians, we certainly struggle with our understanding of mission. As a pastor, I have wrestled with the Church’s shortcomings in mission, and I am aware of the other-izing that can happen when churches engage in mission. However, it was not until Hurricane Harvey that I experienced what it means to be on the receiving end of an unbalanced system. Often, when groups engage in mission, those with resources and privilege go to help in places where people may have less access to resources and have less privilege. This can create all sorts of problems.

The gospel itself stands in tension with privilege, and in recovery work this is not just a theological issue. There are some problematic practical implications for those being helped. My county’s long-term recovery group has a “do no harm” approach to the services that we provide each Harvey survivor. Unfortunately, the un-checked privilege of volunteer groups can do harm to the people who are most vulnerable. Read more

Beyond Disney Royalty: A review of Queen of Katwe

The slums of Katwe, Uganda, are an unlikely place to find a Disney Princess. They’re an equally surprising setting for a movie about a chess prodigy. Yet, this is home to Phiona Mutesi. And her story—the remarkable journey of a young girl who struggles to survive on the streets with her family and finds chess as a path to a brighter future—creates the brilliant tension and inspiration that is Disney’s recent movie Queen of Katwe. This film follows Phiona as she overcomes impossible odds; its focus on tapping the unrealized potential in all people is a gift to viewers who experience Phiona’s story through the lens of the camera.

One of the strengths of the film lies in its ironic juxtapositions: the dusty, chaotic streets of Katwe, lined by the ramshackle shelters that are home to the poorest of the poor, are set as a backdrop for the strategy and precision often associated with the game of chess. Nakku Harriet (Phiona’s single mother played by Lupita Nyong’o) desperately tries–in a culture in which women have few rights and even fewer opportunities–to provide for Phiona and her siblings. Phiona, her sister, and brothers cannot afford to go to school. They spend each day selling corn, hoping they will have enough to eat and pay rent at the end of the day. The story begins to shift when one afternoon, Phiona finds herself outside a church mission that offers sports for children in the city. Seeing that Phiona is hungry, Coach Robert Katende (played by David Oyelowo) invites her inside for porridge. But porridge is not the only remedy for Phiona’s hunger. Inside the mission, Phiona discovers chess.

Katende quickly notices Phiona’s intelligence and innate skill for the game. Once Phiona has won chess matches with all the girls at the mission, she goes on to challenge (and win against) the boys as well. When Katende enrolls the children of Katwe in a chess tournament, Phiona takes the title. Her quick mastery of the game leads her to more tournaments at the local and international level, including the global tournament held in Russia. Plenty of setbacks and moments of conflict arise throughout the film, particularly regarding the clash of Phiona’s own culture with the privilege her success at chess affords. In light of this conflict, Phiona grapples with making difficult decisions. So, too, the viewer must sit with a story that illustrates the paradox that life is neither a magical fairy tale nor a hopeless case. Read more

Finding Hope amidst Honking Horns and Dirty Feet

Editor’s Note:  This Advent, join us for a series of articles that reflect on journeys and travel in our lives. Advent reminds us that we’re not quite there yet, that getting from point A to point B is a form of waiting. We hope this series of articles will help you find a few moments for quiet respite in the middle of the busy-ness of church life in December.  This post is most definitely about journeys.  It was originally published on September 10, 2013 from  Please follow Kirsten’s blog and join me in praying for her ministry in Egypt.

On most days, by the end of the day, I have sweat running down both my forehead and my back.  My feet are black from the dust and dirt.  I am so tired I want to go to bed at about 7:30.  On most days, I’ve learned a few Arabic words, only to forget them by the time I get home.  I hear that something will take ten minutes, but that really means at least thirty.  The sink in the kitchen breaks, leaving the meal program scrambling to provide lunch for the 100+ children who eat there everyday.  I hail what feels like a bajillion cabs before getting one that will actually take me where I need to go. I get the feeling that I’m just supposed to know this, that, and the other thing, but I don’t and I’m not entirely sure who I should ask in order to find out.  When I think I’ve got all the t’s crossed and i’s dotted, I find out that the baas and taas (two letters of the Arabic alphabet) also need to be dotted.  I wait in line only to find out I didn’t have to.  This city is loud and dirty, and seemingly inefficient.  Traffic is horrible.  Getting a straight answer may or may not happen.  And Arabic is really, really hard.

And yet, I love it here.

I love to sit and watch as hundreds of people go by–walking, or riding in mini-buses or taxis, or zooming around traffic on motor scooters.  I love watching men balance on their heads huge boards stacked high with fresh baked bread, while they ride bicycles.  I love to observe the fashion–the gorgeous scarves wrapped and tied in all kinds of ways to cover heads; the totally impractical, but fabulous shoes the same women wear.  I love to listen to Arabic and try to decipher words or patterns.  I love it when I see totally random things on the street, like a flock of sheep in the middle of downtown.  I love it when the young men guarding the embassies in our neighborhood are caught laughing with one another.  I love walking around the neighborhood, people watching, cat watching, finding shade in the afternoon sun.  I haven’t managed to get myself terribly lost in the neighborhood yet, and that’s something.

And it seems like just about the time I find myself frustrated by cultural differences and language barriers, someone walks in my office just to check in.  The guards invite me for an afternoon Pepsi.  One of the teacher’s kids skips by my office, sees I’m there, and stops to give me a hug, dragging her little friend along.  The kid walking down the sidewalk stops to pose for a picture, presumably with the graffiti behind him advertising his favorite soccer team.  (By the way, the word for ball and/or soccer/football is one of the few Arabic words that have stuck in my brain.  Important when you work with kids!)

Part of my job is to work with the pastors of our sister congregations, refugee congregations that worship in the space throughout the week.  The pastors will often stop in to chat, and I ask them how their people find things these days.  Things are a little better now that the curfew doesn’t start until 11, but it is hard.  It’s hard to find work when your status is uncertain and the economy is informal.  It’s hard to live in an area where violence breaks out in unpredictable patterns.  It’s hard to live in a time that is uncertain and even harder when your refugee status card is the wrong color.  (There’s a whole system of colored cards that grant different statuses to refugees.  I don’t entirely understand it yet, but blue card v. yellow card comes up in conversation fairly often.)  I hear these stories of struggle and uncertainty, and it would seem like it could just suck the wind right out of you.

But that’s not all they tell me.  They speak of hope.  They speak of being grounded in Christ. They speak of faith and of community.  And that’s what keeps us all going–the refugees and those of us who work with them.  They speak of a faith that is deeply, deeply rooted in Christ’s promise of life.  They speak of the community giving hope to people who could not find it elsewhere.  They speak of caring for one another and for the children, the weak, the vulnerable.  These people are amazing.  Their faith inspires me.  Really, it breathes life into my tired soul.  Their faith kindles in me new sparks that ignite my own faith.  Their priorities help me reexamine my own, and remind me what’s really important.  They give me the strength to keep going, in spite of frustrations and inefficiencies and language barriers and misunderstandings.

The courtyard was filled the past few days with people waiting to register for English classes.  By 10:30 today, there was a sign on the door that they are full for the term.  I’m not exactly sure how many slots there are, but I know the Adult Education Program director has been very busy the past few days, registering people for classes, organizing space for registration and placement tests.  People are eager to learn and it is beautiful to sit and watch and see all of the faces come and go.  I haven’t had a chance yet to sit and listen to stories, but I will soon.  And those stories will surely be filled with sorrow and grief, and love and hope.

And then there are the kids.  I showed a friend some pictures the other night and her first comment was, “The kids are so happy.  That must be a good school.”  I hear from their pastors some of the challenges their families face, yet when they come to school, they’re kids.  They play soccer and jump rope.  Teenage girls giggle in tight circles as teenage boys lean cooly against the wall, both groups no doubt trying to impress the other.  When I bring out the camera, they gather around and pose.  They tap on my shoulder and pull me to a place where they have the background they want.  They make bunny ears on one another.  I find myself stopping just to watch.  I can’t help but smile.  You can see a smattering of pictures on my Shutterfly site.

So at the end of the day, when my feet are dirty and I find myself ridiculously envious of those who post on Facebook of their 70 degree weather, I think back on my day and say a little prayer of thanks for the taxi driver who, despite my broken Arabic and his broken English, got me home safely.  For the Arabic speaker who doesn’t laugh too much as I mess up words and quickly forget them.  For the kids whose smiles light up their faces.  For the people who fill the courtyard and patiently wait their turn.  To the God who created us all and loves us all very much.  And then, at least for a minute, it’s hard to be frustrated and I don’t feel so tired.  And I remember why it is I love this place.

Kirsten Fryer is an ELCA pastor serving through ELCA Global Mission at St. Andrew’s United Church of Cairo and Pastoral Associate to StARS (St. Andrew’s Refugee Service) in Cairo, Egypt.

Image by: Canadian Veggie. Used with permission.