Letters from Home

Letter-writing used to be big. Trips to the mailbox held great promise. Most days there was enough mail to preoccupy and distract for a little while. But letters were the best.

I spent a good number of years in my youth at summer camps — Camp Blue Haven as a camper and, later, Camp Grady Spruce as a dishwasher and counsel0r. (Two separate jobs and two separate summers.) The mail-call ritual was a highlight of the day.

As a camper, I was so excited to hear my name called. I would tuck the envelope into my pocket and let the anticipation grow as I hurried through lunch. Then off to my cabin in The Barn and the mandatory rest period after lunch. From my bunk, I would read the latest news from home — at least the news that would interest a 10 to 14 year old boy. Most often the letters were from my mom with an occasional missive from my grandmother.

As a camp worker, I don’t recall getting letters from Mom, although I probably did. But I do remember those from Nancy, my life-long love, and from Nikki and a few other friends. As I recall, I received a number of letters from girls who were interested in my brother, Carl, and who thought that making friends with his little brother was a good tactic. I have to admit, I felt a little bit of power from being in that broker role.

Regardless, they were all letters from home. “Home” is a relative term. After all, I heard from people who weren’t from my home. But it was through this correspondence that I learned that home really is where the heart is. The thought that someone would take time and put pen to paper while thinking of me created a place of belonging and brought home wherever I was.

I witnessed Nancy’s dad, Jack, practice this labor of love. I watched him write letters to family and friends. I carried hundreds of his letters from our mailbox to our kitchen table. I watched Nancy reading those letters and then writing her response in turn.

The phone was right there. But there was something magical about letters from home. Not quite as good as a face-to-face visit, but a tangible, lasting conversation on paper.

I know. That era is gone for the most part. But if you can remember letters from home, find a way to recreate the same anticipation, joy, and satisfaction with those you love.

To the Africa Family

"I bless the rains down in Africa . . ."

This morning, I relived a special feeling when Toto’s “Africa” fed through my earphones. Its signature lines about the great continent bring fond memories. In just a couple of weeks, it will be one year from the date six incredible people allowed me to join them on an adventure to Rwanda and Kenya. And even though we spent many hours together preparing for our trip, it was the trip itself that set our relationships in a framework that can only be viewed as remarkable and led to our claim to be “the Africa family.”

In regard to the song, I should note that we never heard live drums echoing in the night, nor did we see Kilimanjaro. Our closest parallel to the imagined journey portrayed in the lyrics was our time on the Serengeti. Even those rains eluded us. We preceded the rainy season by a couple of weeks.

Still, as I listened to the melody cascade over the distinctive drum track, I came face-to-face with special moments. Quiet conversations were frequent. Laughter was a major feature of every single day. What I remember most deeply is the feeling of comfort I had when I was with my Africa family. Thousands of miles from home, that little group became my touchpoint.

When you experience a time of life with a close-knit group of friends, you encounter not only your own feelings, but are immersed in the perspectives and emotions of those around you. I believe that my memories of this particular group of people will always bring me comfort. Thanks Betty, Allison, Robyn, Aaron, Dan, and Malcolm! You changed me.

So, to my Africa family, I want to say “thank you” for sharing that incredible journey. But, more importantly, thanks for opening your lives to me. Over time and the separation of distance, our family will lose some of its familiarity. I hope that you will never lose the feeling of community that was created. I know I never will.

One Year of “Only” Memories

I’ve been at that stage of life for a number of years when it seems we are too often saying our last goodbyes to people we love. And we often acquiesce into the rhythm and relationship of “only” memories.

One year ago today, I was in a meeting in Austin when I received a call from my brother, Carl. My dad, Joe Bill Cope, had passed away earlier that morning following months of illness and decline. Although I regretted being hours away, I was happy for him and his eternal victory.

Through the next few days, weeks, months, and now, one year, my mom and my entire family have walked that road of being without. But, I feel certain I can say for all of us that Dad left us with far more than memories.

I don’t just remember his smile, his voice, his words of advice, his hands on his golf club, and his laugh — sometimes at jokes he couldn’t really hear. I can see his smile, hear his voice, his advice still stops me in my tracks and redirects me, I can smell the grass on the fairway and see his ball shoot out (usually skimming the fairway grass), and hear him join us soulfully with his incredible sense of humor.

It’s been a year. But far much more than “only” memories.

Love you, Dad!

Day 9 – Reset

With our landscape rapidly shifting behind us from Rwanda to Kenya, our team began the traveler’s necessary task of reorienting and redirecting. I found a great deal of comfort in walking to the Octagon multi-purpose building on the Made In The Streets Ministry outside of Nairobi, the meeting place of the Kamulu Church of Christ. Where better to reorient and redirect than in worship and Bible study? I could also sense a great anticipation from all of the team, as we approached this time to reset our priorities and meet new friends in a place so far from our homes.

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Our Sunday morning adventure didn’t disappoint. For the first time, we were able to gather with nearly 100 children who had been invited to leave the tough streets of Nairobi to enter the world of Made In The Streets and a future marked with hope.

We were overwhelmed by this opportunity. The worship was different from our experience in Kigali just seven days before. But although this sanctuary didn’t feature giant sound systems, multiple choirs, and a huge crowd, the spirit and the enthusiasm was there. Seems like you can always see that when God is in a place.

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Photo: Allison Witucki Russell

Much of the singing was in Swahili. You haven’t experienced worship until you sing in Swahili — made all the better when you have Malcolm McGuire and Betty Gilmore joining in at your side. We were surrounded by Kenyans and moved by their desire to welcome us into this holy place. Holy place? Not just the church service. The holy place that emerges whenever people come together to do good.

Our gang of peacemakers and travelers were, just moments before, weary and somewhat leery of what was to come. Our shift in training was from adults to children. And, these children. Could we connect with kids who have been through what these have? Living on the streets of Nairobi. Many involved with drugs and crime. Plucked out of a desperate place and dropped here. Here. Right in the lap of people who loved God and, thus, loved them.

Our trial session came that afternoon. Malcolm and Aaron took the lead. For two hours they stood before the recent graduates of Made In The Streets. These 18 and 19 year olds were about to be sent out to jobs they had been trained for and into a world that was waiting for them. And, thanks to Malcolm and Aaron, with some conflict resolution skills that would serve them well.

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As the sun went down in Kamulu, we knew that we had been given this day to reset our outlook and our priorities. In the words of a song we would sing with the children in the next couple of days, “this was the day that the Lord had made” . . . for us.

Day 6 – Bigger

After one night away from our homebase at the ALARM Rwanda Center in Kigali, I noticed a strange feeling surfacing. Despite the fact that I was 8,500 miles from actual home and my immediate family, I felt a calming effect as we returned to our rooms and our comfortable routine with the local staff. I couldn’t escape the feeling that my presence on this trip was, indeed, providential and part of something much bigger than I had anticipated.

For one thing, our training with the ALARM staff was scheduled for days 6 and 7. The entire team was looking forward to that event. Working with a small group of 10 who have a focused agenda would be far less stressful than our work with the security forces from the Kinyinya District and our trying time with the refugee camp. We had become well-acquainted with about half of the staff and were eager to be with the whole group. Benjamin Nkusi, the national coordinator for ALARM Rwanda, had also been expressing his anticipation and hopes for our time together.

I was also more aware than ever that our little team of Texans was taking on family characteristics of its own. Each member had a spot and we had come to depend on the strengths — and the humor — of each individual. We also had concerns for each other that were much deeper than we had seen before. From a physical standpoint, we were all mindful that international travel, medications, local food, and possibly unbottled water had taken its toll. Three of our team were moving forward valiantly despite illness. We were to learn that illness in this sort of environment was a rolling curtain — as some revive, others fall victim.

There was this feeling that our alliance of trainers, students, professors, and, now, friends, was taking on a bigger identity. (Indeed, since I’m continuing to write these day-by-day reports following our return, I can see the growing language and connections of our “Africa family.”)

Primarily, though, I believe that our group was beginning to recognize and accept their bigger role — both as individuals and as a team — in a broader picture of peacemaking and peacebuilding. And when that begins to happen, wonderful things fall in place.

It’s a blessing from God to join Him in something bigger.