I must start by saying that we’ve been back in Niger for 4 weeks already. Four weeks! But this blog is missing 3 months of my life. Why oh why do I let that much time go by without writing? I don’t have a good answer. But, I’m writing now. So here’s to catching up. Again.
Between Neal and I, or both of us together, we had 30 lunch or dinner meetings with various friends/partners/pastors. That’s a lot of words, and a lot of food! It really is an honor for us to spend time with the people whose sacrifices make it possible for us to serve in Niger. And did I mention the food!?!
We ministered in 10 services because some of the churches had multiple services. Getting the Word out to stay focused! Focused on the harvest of course! By the way, if you didn’t get a chance to hear the message, we found it on YouTube. Capital Life Church posted it. Just look up Neal Childs.
We stayed in 7 different locations which given the number of times we were in and out in other months, isn’t really that many.
Though we stayed in 8 different locations this month, most of the month is what we considered our vacation. The best part was December 16th, when we arrived back in Isanti, MN, the home of my brother and family – that’s where Tanika & Tobi had been living for 4 months. We left them there on Sept. 11th, visited for4 days in October, but hadn’t seen them since. The countdown was on! But I’m getting ahead of myself…
June 24th, 2009 was our 20th wedding anniversary. We were in the midst of children’s camp. Children’s camp is one of our favorite times of the year, but it’s not particularly conducive to celebrating ones anniversary. So, we decided that while we were in the US we were going to celebrate with a cruise. We had never been on a cruise before so didn’t really know what to expect. It was amazing! I looked forward to it for a long time, but now knowing what to expect, I would look forward to it that much more. All things considered it is quite an inexpensive vacation – especially if you don’t plan on spending money on drinks and gambling. Given the amount of food we consumed, I’m afraid we actually cost the cruise line money! We went to Jamaica, Grand Cayman (For just a second, I was pretty sure I heard God calling me to missions work there), and Cozumel. We had a blast in every port, and while at sea. Want our kids with us next time. And friends! We were very smart and strategically planned our trip at the end of our itineration. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why! After it was over, disembarking was bittersweet. We were sad it was over, but thrilled to be on our way to see our kids. We docked in Galveston and on that same day, drove to Tulsa to pick Trae up. We also picked up Salamatu, a student at ORU. But not just any student. She was a little girl when we first came to Niger and her father the pastor of one of our churches. She won one of the two scholarships that Richard Roberts awarded to Nigeriennes when he came to Niger in 2007. She’s in her 2nd year and is doing great. Since all students have to leave campus for Christmas break, we invited her to come with us, since Niger would be a pretty long journey. Salamatu and Tanika have been friends for years, and I wanted to surprise Tanika with her visit. We began our journey North on Monday morning, stopping to see some of our best friends in the Branson, MO area. Had a great 2 days with them, while we adjusted from the warm ocean breezes to the cutting winter winds. Then, finally the day we had all been waiting for. Tanika and Tobi had a bet going as to who was going to run out and hug us first. I guess I should clarify here that the bet was who could hug Trae first…It was a great reunion – we were warm in our hearts but man was I cold on the outside!! Everyone but Tanika knew about Salamatu so I asked S. to wait in the van when we got out. Not very kind of me, given the air temperature! After hugs, we made our way inside and I was a very good actor when I said “Oh, Tanika. I left my purse in the van, can you run and get it for me? I’m freezing!!” Tobi, knowing what was going on, smiled ‘the smile’. The smile only Tobi can smile. Of course when Tanika opened the van, Salamatu jumped out and there were more hugs. (I think Salamatu was trying to get warm!).
Next followed almost 2 weeks of family fun. We got tons of snow. And even though it was cold for this blood that is accustomed to a minimum temperature of 75 degrees, at 30 degrees, it was uncharacteristically warm for Minnesota. This I know, having spent 18years of my life there. My brother created the annual hockey rink in his yard. Tobi learned to skate on this. He graduated from holding on to a folding chair on the ice to gliding (sort of) back and forth – only falling every 2 laps or so. Not bad for a boy who prefers to be kicking a soccer ball in a sand field with bare feet. He was a bit discouraged however when I took to the ice on skates. While getting ready, he brought me the chair and told me that this would help. I said thanks, but that’d I’d see how I could do without it first. For his sake, I should have taken the chair. I was wearing hockey skates – 2 sizes too big – but I still remembered how to skate. It wasn’t pretty, mind you, but I could get from one to the other and turn around without falling. Tobi was so shocked, he wanted to stop skating. He thought I was going to have to learn, just like him. Had to remind him that even though he hasn’t ridden a bike in a long time, that he’d remember how.
Tobi attended public school and finished his last weekl while we were there. Tanika had been going to his class when she had time to read to the kids, and help them with schoolwork. They loved her! Tobi also wanted Trae to come and meet his friends. He also, was a celebrity among them – Tobi is one proud little brother! He was loved by his class and they gave him the sweetest goodbye gift. Each student wrote a letter to Tobi and his teacher bound it into a book with a picture of each child. They wrote the sweetest things about Tobi – I really should duplicate them all here. Tanika took care of my brothers nephews – 1 & 3 years old – 2 days a week. It was a job, but she was good at it, and she enjoyed it. She really misses those little guys. I’m so thankful for the experiences that they both had while spending a few months immersed in the culture of their passport country.
Christmas was spent in Park Rapids at my mom and dads. With the exception of 2, my whole family was there. It was short, but it was great. They live on a lake so we shoveled off an area for another rink, and we played boot hockey. We went sledding, had snowball fights and built a snowman. A neighbor had a snowmobile and graciously let us use it. (Warning: if you ever see Salamatu coming at you on a snowmobile, RUN!) BTW, snowmobiles have come a long way since I was last on one. This one had hand warmers. Hand warmers!! Every summer, my family swims across the lake – it’s about a mile. Dad sacrifices, and he drives the boat in case anyone gets in trouble… Anyway…. I’m usually around every other summer, and I join the swim. Well, I was there this past summer but it was too blasted cold to swim. In July! Seriously, I’m not going to immerse my body in 69 degree water. So my sister Marcia and I decided that though we neglected to do our summer swim, we could redeem ourselves and walk across the lake. So we donned our boots and many layers of clothing, me in my Dad’s 30 year old coveralls. (Wouldn’t you have liked to see that!) There was about 18 inches of snow on the ice, and it was snowing and blowing while we walked. I’m happy to report that we not only walked ‘there’, but we walked back as well. And take it from me, swimming in a piece of spandex is much easier than walking with about 15 pounds of clothing/footwear in a foot and a half of snow. In retrospect though, after all the food we ate, including both ham and deep friend turkey on Christmas Day, it was better that I not be seen in a small piece of spandex.
It’s redundant to say that we had a great time. This was our first Christmas in the US and with my parents/family since 1997. Tobi has never experienced and “American Christmas” or snow for that matter. I have to admit that I enjoyed the cold and snow much more than I thought I would. That wasn’t a huge stretch, because I really didn’t expect to enjoy that part of it all. But I was pleasantly surprised. I think it brought back memories of my childhood…laying on the snowbank in the dark, (there’s very little daylight in the winter) watching the snowfall and amazed by it’s silence while trying to catch a snowflake on my tongue. And I don’t know what was wrong with me, but I used to enjoy holding my breath while thrusting my face directly into a snow pile, then looking up and telling people I was sweating. Guess I was unconsciously dreaming of Niger!
It all too quickly came to an end. Not only did we have to leave my family, we were going to leave Trae. It was one thing to leave him in Oklahoma while we traveled to another State, and quite another to leave him in the US while we traveled to another country. D-Day was December 29th. I shouldn’t say it like that, but that’s kind of how it felt. The balmy temps of the 20’s and 30’s were a thing of the past, and the ‘normal’ below zero temps returned. We had to leave at 4:30am to get both Trae and Salamatu to the airport. Trae was flying to Portland to see Christi and meet her family (that’s a whole other post) and Salamatu was returning to Tulsa. We would then be on our way bright and early on our final road trip. Final destination was the DC area. We had been borrowing winter clothes, as it was pointless for us to buy our own – since we have no plans even in the distant future to be living in a cold climate. But no worries, our van has a very good heating system. So there we were. We said some sad goodbyes to my brother and family – who had been mom and dad and brother and sisters to Tanika and Tobi for 4 months. The 6 of us and all of our load piled into the van wearing sweatshirts. It was -2. Everyone had to hold suitcases on their laps, but that was only for the 1 hour trip to the airport. Then we’d be minus 2 people. No sense in asking my brother to brave the cold and predawn drive if it wasn’t necessary! We were well on our way but alas, at 5am we experienced something that we know only too well. Something that happens frequently in Niger. A flat tire. A blow out really. We pull over. Hmmm…What to do. We have traveled nearly 25,000 miles in this van with nary a problem. Now, when time is of the essence and temperatures are ungodly, the tire goes flat. We didn’t even know where the spare was. I had to get the book out! Of course it was mounted under the vehicle. The crank was inside the vehicle. But remember, the vehicle is loaded with 6 people and all of their things (things they have been collecting for 6 months!) And we’re in sweatshirts. And it’s 2 below 0. I can now say with full knowledge that I would much rather change a tire when it’s 120 degrees then when it’s -2. Everything was frozen to everything else. Neal and Trae, supermen that they are, located and removed the spare. Without gloves! Only to find that it was low. Clearly we needed help. Time was ticking. The only thing I could think of was to call my wonderful brother. I got him just as he was dozing back to sleep. We needed to get Trae to the airport. Brian, quick thinker that he is (which is why we sometimes spell his name “Brain”) said he was on his way but that he would just send us to the airport in his car and he would come fully clothed (we weren’t naked, but it almost felt like it in those temps). I had been dreading the goodbyes with Trae, but in the end this was almost better as it left no room for emotion – at least not sadness. Brian pulled up and I told Tanika and Trae to very quickly say their goodbyes. No time for dilly dallying. There was a long security line waiting for Trae. We were getting his bags into the car and I looked up and see Tobi in an unzipped sweatshirt, standing outside on the side of the road, tears not even able to run off his cheeks because they were freezing on his face. All he could say is, “I don’t want Trae to leave”. (I seriously dong think he felt the cold at that point.) I don’t either buddy, but we’ve gotta go! We left Brian, completely winterized from head to toe, along with a tear stained Tobi and Tanika. As we were leaving, Mr. ‘Brain’ himself informed us that there may not be enough gas in the car to get to the airport – he wasn’t sure! We were on our way. We arrived at about 6:30am – to a ridiculously long security line. Our goodbye went something like this: ((( Hug))). OK Man. I love you. Do good. Make good choices. And ask for help in the airport if you need it. And hurry up! Love you.” That was it. No time for anything else. Just hoping that he was going to make it to his gate – and I had my doubts. Salamatu had a bit more time and we drove her to her terminal. She had to rearrange some things in her bag – outside on the sidewalk. This was her frist experience with this extreme cold and all she could say as we were both shaking was that she had no idea it was possible to be this cold. We got her off and made our way back to Brian, Tanika & Tobi. Brian had put the donut that was lacking air on the van, drove it to a nearby station to put air in it, and had found a tire place that was open at 6:3oam! Two new tires later we were on our way — and it was only 8am. Thank you Brian! Oh, and Trae called at 7:15 to say he had just gotten on the plane. Relief!
We had already booked our hotel for that night on Priceline, so were pretty locked in. I chose Cleveland, expecting that we would be on the road by 6am so would have lots of time to get there. It made for a very, very long day. But we made it. Tobi called the hotel himself to find out how late the hot tub was open. Because we had to decide if we were going to stop and eat, or skip it and make it in time to the hot tub. We all voted hot tub. We left at 4:30am, and arrived at 10:30pm. No hurry the next day though, so we had a lovely morning and all slept in and had a wonderful breakfast at Cracker Barrel before hitting the road for our 7 hour trip to Alexandria, VA. Our friend and children’s camp team leader had lasagna waiting for us when we arrived. We had a great time with her – reconnecting with many camp team members and were able to make plans for their trip to Niger for this year’s camp. Celebrated New Years Eve at Cuong’s new condo, then went to see Invictus on New Year’s Day. What a great movie – a perfect one to see to bring in the New Year. That evening we had dinner with our good friends Bill and Lisa Shuler, pastors of Capital Life Church, the church that sends us the camp teams, and with Lisa Renzi – another great friend. From there we moved on to Towson, MD to stay with the Cherney’s and visit friends from Belvedere Church. A church that has been supporting us for years. That’s where the ‘great pack up’ was taking place. It was wonderful to have the space in the church that we had. We stayed with Carl and Linda in their beautiful home – away from our stuff. Then we would go to the church to organize and pack. We had 3 full days to shop, organize, pack and tape our boxes. Excess baggage has become such a huge expense— $3/pound to be exact. So we are very choosy as to what we bring. This process is worthy of it’s own post and maybe someday I’ll write about it.
In the midst of our packing, Linda took us to the Baltimore Aquarium. That was a blast, and a welcome break from our focused packing.
Every day was bringing us a day closer to our departure. The day finally arrived. January 7th. Both Linda and Carl had to drive us to Dulles airport as we needed 2 vehicles. We were 4 people with 12 bags and 8 carry ons. Our lightest load ever. Our trip to Paris went well. Watched movies, slept and ate. Paris was a bit challenging as the terminal we were in was freezing. And I’m not exaggerating either. We could see our breath. Again, we are without winter wear. I went digging through our carry-ons for any shred of extra clothing I could find. Needless to say I looked ridiculous. Made me all the more desperate to get back to Niger. Where is hot season when I need it? (I’ll be regretting those words in about a month). Unfortunately the plane we were waiting for was coming from Chicago – where a snowstorm was raging so it was delayed. More time to freeze. We finally made it onto the plane where I promptly grabbed my blanket and Tobi’s blanket. Because Tobi is never cold.
The flight went well and was it ever a wonderful feeling when those wheels touched down, bounced, and touched down again in my Niger. I got off the plane as I have so many times before, but this time I appreciated the heat. I really appreciated it. No heavy coat weighing me down. No frozen fingers or toes. And how wonderful to see how things had advanced in the 6 months we had been away. Immigration had computers (well, A computer), and there were xray machines at customs so we didn’t have to open our bags. Not a one. But the best part of all was when we walked out of the airport. Waiting for us were not only mom and dad, who we expected, but greeting our ears before our eyes even saw them were many of our pastors and church members singing praise choruses thanking God for our safe return and welcoming us. It was good to be home!