Confessions from an American Christian Expatriate

Quick link: Dear American Church

I wrote this week for A Life Overseas about the complicated feelings I have as an American expatriate toward the American evangelical church. The essay required a lot of humility and vulnerability because I confess how judgemental I can be.

Its gross.

But it is also good because I relearn, every time I’m back in the USA, why I love the church, in all her imperfections and mess. Because she loves me back, in all of my imperfections and mess.

Here’s part of the piece:

Dear American Church,

Sometimes I feel cynical about you. This should not sound surprising, especially coming from an expatriate. I haven’t engaged deeply with you in almost sixteen years. My ‘church’ has been a motley crew of people from all nations and all denominations and all manner of theological bent in terms of eschatology, gender roles, predestination (or not). My pastors rarely speak English. My family is usually the only white family.

My other church, the BODY, has been women I take long, sweaty, dusty walks with, sometimes chased by wild dogs or men with AK-47s. We pray, we hold hands, we shout, we weep, we fight, we forgive and ask forgiveness. We try to untangle the world’s brokenness and our own. We babysit each other’s children, counsel through hard marriages, donate blood in the hospital. We do Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, baptisms, baby dedications, and grief in each other’s homes. We don’t attend services together inside a building but we live worship together in the world.

We are a small community and a constantly changing one, which means we cannot stagnate. We have to try, really hard, to not close ourselves off to each new arrival or to isolate in sadness after each fresh departure. We know we are a hot (literal) mess.

So sometimes when I come back to America for a visit, the church feels so big. So impersonal. So unengaged in relationship. Focused on politics and national pride. So rich, so much pressure to buy certain books or to dress well enough to look presentable in services. So homogeneous.

And I judge.

Oh God, forgive me, I judge. While I’m away, I cry about loneliness and limited relationship options and the exhaustion of the revolving expatriate door. But then while I’m in the US, I judge.

Click here to read the rest.

When Things Crash and Stories from the Horn

Don’t let me hold your phone, drive your car, or borrow your computer. Don’t ask me for tech help on your blog, newsletter, Facebook account, or anything else.

I have been run into twice in the past few months by motorcycles. They literally ran right into the car. Once on the driver’s side and once on the passenger side.

Both times the motorcycle driver was at fault, like going the direction on the road, passing on the wrong side, not using turn signals, multiple witnesses all agreeing with them being at fault, all kinds of at fault. I will not publicly go into all manner of not okay-ness in how I was held to blame.

Sometimes, Djibouti wins.

I downloaded an update on my phone and it never worked again. Go to the Apple store, says the internet. I say, “The nearest Apple store is off the continent.

The water proof bag I used to carry items wasn’t actually water proof. Not for me. For so many others, yes. Me? Not this time.

My website crashed.

My computer crashed.

I ruined my newsletter list.

I can fix it. We can fix it. The technician and mechanic can fix it.

But what a headache. Aren’t all these things supposed to make life easier?

I’ll tell you what was easier: not having a phone because it broke. No pressure to take photos – just memorize the moment, just experience the moment. No pressure to respond to messages. No need to post updates.

Still.

Writers gotta internet. Or something like that.

And nowadays, writers gotta newsletter.

This is what is drilled into us everywhere I go online. Build your email list. Facebook and Instagram could crash or close (like they did on July 3 this year – anyone else have image issues? I swear I had nothing to do with that). Don’t let someone else have control of your work.

And I’ve discovered that I really love working on my newsletter and building that email list. People don’t comment on blogs that much anymore and Facebook and Twitter sorta overwhelm me. But in my newsletter, I get to be myself without blabbing it all over the internet. And I get to respond, one on one, to comments and questions and feedback.

I get to work on essays that in the past I would have tried to pitch to magazines but now I love keeping them just my newsletter.

Here are some of the wide-ranging recent topics:

  • How love in dating is different to love in marriage
  • Female genital mutilation from the voices of Djiboutian women
  • The story of a man who lived with a bullet in his head for 18 years and what happened when it came out
  • The next one will be about the cheek kissing greeting. Ever wonder if people accidentally kiss on the lips? I don’t know about people, but I do know about me

I curate stories from the Horn of Africa and Somali news from all over the world. I love doing this – keeping myself and readers up to date on what’s happening in the places we care about, super cool stories about the new superfood: camel’s milk or about Somali yoga lessons on the beach in Mogadishu or about the apparent new Cold War between China and the US taking place in Djibouti, about disastrous White Savior problems in Uganda…

I give loads of book recommendations, including Kindle Deals for the best books, usually under $3.00.

And we do this silly thing where I take quotes from famous people from Gandhi to Oprah to Mr. Rogers and replace the word “struggle” with the word “snuggle.” Because we could all use a little more snuggle in our lives these days.

Its kind of like letting people see the things I love to talk about. Like if we sat down over coffee, I would probably ask you what great book you’re reading. Or what fascinating story has gripped you lately? Or do you have any idea how to untangle the mess or how to celebrate the successes in the Horn lately?

Last week, I switched email providers because I wanted to be better able to provide great content and meet the needs of readers.

Alas.

Remember how nothing was working?

That didn’t work either.

I feel like an idiot. I probably am one. Or didn’t read the instructions well enough, though I felt certain I did. I don’t know.

In any case, a lot of people’s emails fell through the cracks. Like a lot, a lot.

And if you don’t want to read Stories from the Horn anymore and your email fell through – no worries! I’m glad you hung around for a while and you’re welcome back any time, but you are also totally free to head out in other reading directions.

If you do subscribe and still want to, Aweber has assured me, they have solved the problem. So hang tight, some of you have contacted me and I will make sure you’re all added in correctly. I’m so sorry for the hassle and confusion.

If you have never subscribed but are intrigued by what is on offer, I’d love to have you join in. Its totally free, I will never sell or give out your email address. You’ll get a free download: 25 Things You Need to Know but No One Will Tell You about Moving Abroad (and a bonus, secret free download too, once you confirm.)

And if you do subscribe and hit reply to the email when it comes into your inbox, to send me a message or ask a question, I promise to respond. I read every single email and (so far) am able to respond to them all. It might take a day or two, but I love hearing what drew you to Stories from the Horn or ideas on what you’d like to hear more about from me, suggestions on how I can serve you better, or just a “hi!”

Here’s a link for signing up, if you haven’t already seen it posted like, everywhere, on the blog.

Do you have a newsletter? I’d love to check it out.

Send me your link or include it in the comments.

Expat Focus Podcast

Quick link: Expat Focus Podcast

Check out my interview with Carly at Expat Focus!

“Today on the show, we’re talking about raising children abroad, specifically as Third Culture Kids.

‘TCKs’ are people raised in a culture different to that of their parents, and the country named on their passport.

My guest, American Rachel Jones, is a mum of three TCKS. She left the USA with her husband and their young twins to work in northern Somaliland, and later Djibouti, where she still lives.

So what’s it like raising your kids in a country that’s so different to your own? How does the experience influence their development, and shape them as adults? And what challenges are you likely to encounter along the way? Rachel’s going to share her insights, which she hopes will help other parents create a thriving family culture while living internationally.”

*photo by Jessica Lee

The Bookshelf, June 2019

The Parade, by Dave Eggers My list this month starts with a novel. This means I really enjoyed this book. Its a quick read, but dark and twisty. I like me some dark and twisty in novels. For anyone who has lived abroad, especially in slightly dangerous or off the beaten trail places, you’ll love this book. It captures several extremes in terms of how expats respond to the challenges of being foreign.

Braving the Wilderness, by Brene Brown. Of course this is a great read, its Brene Brown. I’d already read it but was looking for some ideas about community and relationships and she explores the deep need and longing we have for belonging. As a an expatriate, this resonates so much with me.

Running Home, by Katie Arnold. I loved parts of this book and honestly, skimmed a few parts. Katie’s relationship with her dad is complicated and she deftly captures the love/grief connection. Reading parts of this made me really, really want to destroy my journals. I only journal the bad stuff, so if one of my kids later tries to figure me out, and expose me by writing about me, after I die by reading my journals, they will totally miss my reality and only see my anger or sorrow. The parts I loved were when she talked about running, ultras and marathons and loved it.

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong It is hard to read about religious violence over the course of history, but also important. This book puts things like the Crusades and jihad into perspective and context.

Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship, by Al Ghazali. Super interesting, to read about more contemplative ways of looking at spiritual practice within Islam.

If the Oceans Were Ink: an Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, by Carla Powers. An interesting take on moderate Islam through the exploration and friendship of a non-Muslim. I wanted to love this book but found myself liking it, parts felt a bit slow and limited in perspective but I also really appreciated Carla’s willingness to evaluate her own religious convictions and to question her friend, a sheikh, on hard topics.

 

What are you reading lately?

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June Bookshelf

(all links go to my Amazon Storefront page, from which I earn a small commission, at no increased cost to you.)

Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, by Eboo Patel I loved this book. I appreciate Eboo’s perspective on interfaith relationships. He doesn’t pretend all faiths are the same, he doesn’t try to smooth over differences or force a stilted and dulling pretense of agreement. He challenges us to live with the spacious of faith that loves and believes what we love and believe, while fully respecting another to love and believe what they do. Even, he exhorts us, we can learn from one another. Much like I have learned about the power of posture in prayer from my Muslim friends, while not insisting we pray alike. This is lovely memoir by a man who practices what he preaches.

Homing Instincts, by Sarah Menkedick I loved this book, too! So beautiful. I heard a podcast interview with Sarah in which she talked about the lack of serious writing about motherhood and I totally agreed. This is a deep exploration of the body, identity, and home, through the nine months of her pregnancy. She had previously spent a lot of time abroad so I particularly resonated with that aspect of her transition to motherhood.

Paris, I Love You, but You’re Getting Me Down, by Rosecrans Baldwin. Liked it, didn’t love it. It’s a bit crass, so you’ve been warned. Super funny, especially as a person who has studied French and spent some time in Paris. I will always love reading how other people navigate cross cultural work and relationships.

A Sinner in Mecca: a Gay Muslim’s Hajj of Defiance, by Parvez Sharma. Gay. Muslim. Pilgrimage. This is a loaded book and it includes an extensive exploration of the violent aspects of jihad as the author goes deep into Saudi Wahhabi teachings. Like Paris, I Love You, this book is a bit crass. I didn’t need to read about all the author’s sexual exploits in the underground gay bars of Beirut or Cairo. But I was fascinated by his writing about the hajj. Okay, I’m fascinated by almost all writing about the hajj, as it is the most mysterious of the Islamic Pillars, to an outsider. I watch people pray, hear them say the Shahadah, join in fasting, and we all give to the poor. But the hajj is behind a shroud, so reading this was like peeking behind the curtain. I’m sure more conservative Muslims take deep offense at some of what he writes, but I’m trying to read widely as I learn. I have to admit that I love his sort of ‘inside jokes’ as a Muslim. I’ve been a Christian all my life and there are things other Christians just get that are funny, jokes about Chubby Bunny or when on road trips and someone says, “Matthew 4:19a” and everyone gets in their cars because they know the reference (“Come, follow me.”). For example, Parvez’s friend texts him, “Come on over, the beer is flowing like the water of Zamzam.” I enjoy when people can make light of their faith, even while they love it and hold to it fiercely. Its human.

In the Land of Invisible Women: a Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, by Qanta Ahmed. I have loved lately reading spiritual memoirs by Muslims. They’ve been harder to dig up, but its been a pleasure to find some in my Kindle library or on sale. This is by an Indian Muslim doctor, trained in the US, who takes a job at a hospital in Saudi Arabia. While there, she goes on the pilgrimage, hajj, to Mecca. What I appreciated most about this book is that she is not a religious outsider, looking in, aghast, at Saudis. As a Muslim, she has a unique perspective.

Newsletter Ninja: How to Become an Author Mailing List Expert, by Tammi Labrecque. Hopefully this book will help me serve you guys all better. And if you’re a writer or creative who also has a newsletter, get this book! Super practical and helpful. And inexpensive.

New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. I’ll share a quote, to let you know what this book is about. “It should be accepted as a most elementary and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say “no” on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.” Not an easy lesson for so many of us in this age. He also suggests we avoid radios and advertisements. If Merton only knew…