Pieces of God’s Puzzle

“He dribbled on you, that’s good luck!” Pauline exclaimed as I swung her grandson up over my head and onto my lap, getting a face-full of baby spit in the process. It was news to me that baby spit was good luck; yet, despite the fact that Pauline was laughing at me – as usual – I could see a seriousness in her eyes that assured me she was not joking. I had received a blessing in that wetting just as surely as if I was in a church. Memories of “high church” services floated to the forefront of my mind, complete with priests in cassocks spraying the assembled worshippers with waters of blessing from immersed pine sprigs. I laughed delightedly as I wiped the blessed spittle off my face with my sleeve, while bouncing the happy baby boy on my knee.

In a way it made sense. These afterschool sessions at Camp Symonette – led by the fearless, fun and creative Brenda Thompson – were a little bit of everything, so why not have some blessing thrown in there as well. There certainly was enough blessing to go around on any given afternoon.

Like many rich experiences, the after school time with the kids from James Cistern Primary School was the part of the day that filled me with the most dread and the most joy. You could hear them coming a good ways off, as TJ scooped up the entire contents of the small elementary school building into our bus and brought them bouncing, laughing, chattering and screaming down the long bumpy driveway of Camp Symonette. “They’re coming,” I would invariably say – half whisper, half scream – interrupting our preparations to sound the alarm with all the urgency of a horseless Paul Revere.

It had all been a bit too much for me the first day I had experienced it. Dozens of children, swarming around me, no clue as to what their names were or how to get them to calm down. But it did not take long for my heart to thaw out; for when you learn a child’s name, you quickly learn a child’s heart – and then everything changes. Perhaps learning Brenda’s heart was more crucial to my thawing than anything else, however. Regardless of how tired she was, regardless of how little time we had to prepare, she had no intention of giving up on her volunteer venture and no intention of giving these children anything less than all the love, discipline, teaching and laughter that she had to offer.

Like riding a bike, I felt myself falling back into a rhythm. My apprehension with getting too involved had not been because the work was unfamiliar, but because it was too familiar. It brought back feelings of the happiest time in my life, back in 2009, when I felt most certain that I was in the right place and doing what God was calling me to do. At the time I was living in an intentional community that offered a home to houseless women and children, and rehabilitated boarded up dwellings in the community. Working with a historic congregation in the heart of Durham, NC, I had joined hearts and hands with them to dream about how we could connect with families in our neighborhood – both those long established and those newly arrived from other countries. God gave us the joy of watching that dream become a reality within a couple months as we launched the Wright Room with no funding and no paid staff but with plenty of love and support from many in the city, state and beyond. I fit into those people’s hearts, and they fit into mine like the puzzle piece that starts to make your jumble look like a picture.

But my puzzle piece heart had been ripped out of that picture and I never quite felt the same again. The attention our ministry was getting from the press and community drew new faces, and my supervisors  became worried that I was being stalked by one of these individuals. Concerned for the children I was living with, I left the community for a time while church leaders tried to ascertain my safety.  After a brief interruption when my grandmother died the next week, I received the decision that they did not feel they could manage the situation with my suspected stalker.

Heart doubly broken, and aware that my family was in pain, I made the choice to go home, to head North. I never talked about what had happened, never told people why I was leaving, I just slipped away. I thought it would make things easier for those who I led in ministry. I was consumed with the worry that what had happened to me would be disillusioning for our young leaders.  I did not want them to carry the hurt that I was carrying; I did not want them to misplace their anger on the church.  They did stay, and they did grow, and my heart feels so big it could burst with joy and pride when I see pictures of graduations and of new babies and of bright futures.

And now I get the chance to serve under the leadership of a woman who inspires this community the way that God once used me to inspire another community; a woman who compels others to action through her own example; a woman who makes our oddly shaped and differently colored puzzle pieces somehow form a picture. In the symmetry, I see my story mirrored and I begin again. In the magnetic pull of this team, I feel my heart coming back together. I may not yet know where my puzzle piece belongs, but I begin again to see its contours, its shapes, its pattern. And seeing myself clearly is the first step in finding my place in God’s picture.

While I wait and while I listen to God, I’ll spend a few more of my Tuesdays and Thursdays here with Brenda, Pauline, Maxine, Lori, TJ, Leroy, and whoever else gets drawn into this picture God is creating. I will hone my soccer skills, which are epic by Bahamian standards, and my free throw shots, which are epic by absolutely nobody’s standards. I will brush up on my arithmetic, practice being patient, and feel the joy of being part of a team. I will begin the afternoon with the slightly alarmed whisper, “they’re coming!” – and end it with the confidence that I have just experienced the best part of my day.

I will rest in the humbling knowledge that God calls forth these pockets of faithfulness and joy all over the world, and I am not necessary to God moving, but I am welcome to get caught in the current.

So bless me Lord, once again, with frustrating math problems and pencils that need to be sharpened; with balls to my head and sticky fingers on my arms; with the sight of young men playing sports with the young boys who crave their attention; with snack time and craft time and play time; and most of all, Lord, cover me in baby spit, for a very wise woman told me that receiving that kind of baptismal remembrance is very good luck – and I’ve never found Pauline to be wrong yet.

Leroy shares some dunking lessons with the James Cistern kids.
Leroy shares some dunking lessons with the James Cistern kids.
Brenda keeps an eye on the baby with the blessed spit.
Brenda keeps an eye on the baby with the blessed spit.
Maxine, Pauline's sister, reads to the kids.
Maxine, Pauline’s sister, reads to the kids.

And some bonus vintage photos from my days serving at the Isaiah House and the Wright Room  in 2009.

Eliciting a rare smile from the little girl who cried every day because her daddy had been deported.
Eliciting a rare smile from the little girl who cried every day because her daddy had been deported.
2009 - Working hard with young leaders at painting one of the rooms in the church to be a gathering place for young people in the community.
2009 – Working hard with young leaders at painting one of the rooms in the church to be a gathering place for young people in the community.
2009 - Water balloon day at the Wright Room
2009 – Water balloon day at the Wright Room

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