Maybe it’s time we suffered together. Maybe it’s time we stopped wielding our privileges and started leveraging them for others.
One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to hang out in the kitchen with the native cooks. On my recent trip to Haiti, I did just that and learned a new recipe for Militon Faci.
Madame Adeline, a new cook on staff at the guest house where we stay, attended culinary school in Port Au Prince. I’ve long had a love affair with Haitian food. Although I’ve tasted and prepared lots of the Haitian dishes, Madame Adeline introduced me to some dishes I’ve never had before. She was delighted to teach my daughter, Giada, and me the recipe for Militon Faci or Stuffed Chayote Squash using some French cooking techniques.
Chayote belongs to the gourd family, along with melons, cucumbers and squash. Chayote is known around the world by other names including christophine cho-cho, pipinola, pear squash, vegetable pear, or choko. I’ve tasted chayote in Mexican salads and prepared Haitian-style cut in strips and sautéed in a tomato-garlic sauce.
Militon Faci reminds me of a twice baked potato. The shell of the chayote provides a vessel to hold the cheesy mashed insides. It’s pretty dish with melt-in-your-mouth goodness. We were begging in Haitian Kreyol for more!
-5 chayote squash
-1/2 teaspoon salt plus 1/4 teaspoon salt
-1 small onion
-1 small green pepper
-1/2 cup flour
-1 cup milk
-1/4 cup butter plus 2 tablespoons cut into small chunks
-3 sprigs parsley
-1 stalk green onion
-2 drops Tabasco sauce
-1 bouillon cube
-1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1. Cut 5 chayote in half. Remove center seed.
2. Boil 10 minutes in salt water (1/2 teaspoon salt).
3. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
4. Remove soft insides of the squash. Mash squash with potato masher.
5. Chop one small onion and small green pepper.
6. Put mashed squash in strainer to drain juice. Discard excess juice.
7. Measure out 1/2 cup flour.
8. Heat pan and add 1 cup milk and 1 cup water. Heat through but do not boil. Set aside in separate bowl.
9. Create a bechemel sauce: Add 1/4 cup butter to pan. Whisk until completely melted.
10. Add chopped onion and green pepper to butter in pan. Sauté.
11. Add flour and whisk together with onions and peppers for 1 minute. Add milk and water to pan.
12. Tie together a small bundle of parsley and 1 stalk green onion to create a Bouquet Garni (pronounced “bo-KAY gar-NEE”). Add to sauce to flavor it.
13. Add 2 drops Tabasco sauce, 1 cube bouillon. Keep whisking.
14. Add 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Let mixture bubble until it thickens. Add small amount of salt (about 1/4 teaspoon).
15. Remove parsley and green onion.
16. Add bechemel sauce to squash and stir together to incorporate.
17. Grease/butter a cookie sheet with sides.
18. Line up squash shells on pan. Fill with bechemel mixture.
19. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
20. Add tiny piece of butter (about 1/2 teaspoon) to the top of each squash.
21. Put tray in oven for 20 minutes to brown tops of squash.
The smell of garlic mixing with basil wafted to my nose. Laughter filled the room as kids rolled out billowy pizza dough into creative shapes and ran to the “market table” to retrieve ingredients. In the corner, some oil and Italian sausage were sizzling in an electric skillet.
“What will help thicken our sauce?” one called out.
“How much time do we have left?” another quipped.
Looking for a fun activity for this summer with your kids? How about inviting them into the kitchen to make some memories and some yummy, creative eats?
This past year I helped teach some cooking classes for my daughter’s fifth grade class. Her school is all about hands-on learning and our cooking classes provided great opportunities to discuss healthy choices, math, creativity and more.
For the end-of-the-year celebration, we staged an “Iron Chef Competition” so the kids could show off their newfound skills and creativity.
One of the moms came and showed the kids how to make homemade pizza dough (recipe below). The next day they used that pizza dough as their “secret ingredient.” We divided the students into teams of four or five. Each team had to make an appetizer, main dish or dessert using their pizza dough, a homemade sauce, and at least three other toppings or ingredients.
These kids knocked our socks off with their creativity!
Our judges had a tough time picking the winners because these kids made everything from pesto dough bites to calzones to berry-filled desserts with their pizza dough and ingredients. The winner was the Purple Mountain’s Majesty dessert. So yummilicious! The best part was seeing the kids have the confidence to chop and mix ingredients, and then serve up their creations.
Mamas, it’s often easier to keep the kiddos out of the kitchen but cooking could also provide a fun activity for a summer afternoon or weekend evening. And who knows, maybe one day you can just assign them the task of making dinner while you put your feet up and read a book or relax?! It’s all about training!
2 cups (9 ounces) unbleached bread flour, chilled
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
5 teaspoons olive oil
2/3 cup + 2 tablespoons water, ice cold (40°F)
3 cups mozzarella cheese
Other toppings of your choice (ie. black olives, sliced green peppers, fresh basil, onions, pepperoni, Italian sausage)
olive oil spray
pizza stones or pans
- Stir together the flour, salt, and instant yeast in a bowl. With a large metal spoon, stir in the oil and the cold water until the flour is all absorbed, repeatedly dip one of your hands or the metal spoon into cold water and use it to work the dough vigorously into a smooth mass while rotating the bowl in a circular motion with the other hand. Reverse the circular motion a few times to develop the gluten further. Do this for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the dough is springy, elastic, and sticky, not just tacky, and register 50 to 55 degrees. (The dough should clear the sides of the bowl but stick to the bottom of the bowl. If the dough is too wet and doesn’t come off the sides of the bowl, sprinkle in some more flour just until it clears the sides. If it clears the bottom of the bowl, dribble in a teaspoon or two of cold water.)
- Place a square of parchment paper in a large container with a lid and spray with olive oil spray. Sprinkle (or “dust”) flour over the dough. Transfer the dough to container. Mist the dough generously with spray oil and place cover on the container. Put the container of dough into the refrigerator overnight to rest the dough.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator 2 hours before making the pizza. Make sure your hands are dry and then sprinkle flour on them. Divide dough in three. Lift each section of the dough and gently round it into a ball. Lift the dough up, and have someone else dust three pieces of the parchment paper with flour, and then mist with spray oil. Place the dough on top of the parchment paper. Gently press each ball of dough into a flat disk about 1/2 inch thick. Dust the dough with flour, mist it again with spray oil, and place the cover back on.
- Now let rest for 2 hours.
- If using a baking stone, place on the floor of the oven (for gas ovens), or on a rack in the lower third of the oven at least 45 minutes before baking. Heat the oven as hot as possible, up to 800 degrees (most home ovens will go only to 500 to 550, but some will go higher).
- Place a large (a little bigger than final pizza size) piece of parchment paper on the work surface and dust it with flour. Dust the front and back of your hands with flour. Have a partner lift the dough out by the parchment paper. Have them gently turn the dough upside down across the back of your fists and peel off the parchment paper. Roll dough out to the crust shape you desire.
- Lay it on the parchment paper. Lightly top it with sauce and then with your other toppings, remembering that the best pizzas are topped with a less-is-more philosophy. The more toppings there are, the more difficult it is to bake. A few, usually no more than 3 or 4 toppings, including sauce and cheese is sufficient.
- Slide the parchment paper and pizza onto the stone and place in oven. Wait 2 minutes, then take a peek. If it needs to be rotated 180 degrees for even baking, do so. The pizza should take about 5 to 8 minutes to bake.
- Remove the pizza from the oven and transfer to a cutting board. Wait 3 to 5 minutes before slicing and serving, to allow the cheese to set slightly.
**A huge thank you to Elizabeth Orr who shared the original version of this pizza dough recipe and taught the kids to make the dough. If you’d like to check out more of my recipes shared in community, click HERE.
**Check out my children’s picture book, Cora Cooks Pancit, which also includes a recipe in the back to make with kids!
My first real venture out of the United States was a study abroad program in Central America during my senior year of college. Our home base was San Jose, Costa Rica, but we also spent time sojourning through Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
I still remember that moment.
I was sitting around a rugged wooden table with a diverse group of Guatemalans and a group of college students from across the United States. The table was spread with billowy, soft bread, crema for dipping, sliced avocadoes, juicy steaks, rice and beans, and a pitcher of some kind of icy, hand-squeezed citrus refresco. We bowed our heads to pray before our meal, and my heart swelled a bit.
I was home.
Mind you, I don’t have any Central American blood. I had never traveled to Guatemala before. But something deep inside me felt at home. The warmth of the people, the bright colors of their woven clothing and wall hangings, the rich flavors of the food, the passion of their praise and worship, the abundant affection of the children – all of it felt like home to me.
In fact, I felt more at home there than I had ever felt back home in the U.S.
Less than three years later I found myself surrounded by hundreds of Haitian children in the middle of a soccer field in the Northern mountains of Haiti. I was there with a group of young career singles from my church in California to put on a Track and Field camp. In the sweltering July tropical heat, we marked off the field like a circular track and we watched these kids race joyfully around it in bare feet. Somehow by the end of that week, I had learned enough Kreyol and cross-cultural sign language to communicate with these kids.
I felt it again. I was home. I was far from home, yet I was very much at home.
When I opened Tsh Oxenreider’s recently-released travel memoir, I knew I had found a kindred spirit. Tsh understands what it is like to feel At Home in the World. She, too, is a mama fueled by wanderlust but also longing for a sense of rootedness, a sense of community, a sense of home.
This book is unique because it takes readers on an adventure with Tsh’s family across four continents in nine months. She and her husband are not your typical world travelers. They are not trying to escape responsibility or drop out of college or avoid a withering relationship. They are happily married and have three kids in tow. They limit themselves to one backpack each and endeavor to stay in neighborhoods and homes where real people live across the globe.
This is not a fancy vacation. This is “worldschooling” at its best.
I was immediately captivated and intrigued by Tsh’s storytelling and reflections. This book whispers, “Come along” without pomp or pretense. We adventure with this family through the bustle of traffic in Beijing. We join them to snorkel the magnificent Great Barrier Reef. We linger with them over Thai food in Chiang Mai. We celebrate a summertime Christmas with them in Queensland. We join them for a coffee ceremony in Ethiopia and mint tea at the market in Morocco. We coast the Nile River with them in Uganda and stand in awe before Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We buy bacon together at the boucherie in France and sample gelato more than once a day in Italy.
I love Tsh’s reflections on home throughout the book. She challenges me with this: “Travel has taught me the blessing of ordinariness, of rootedness and stability. It’s courageous to walk out the front door and embrace earth’s great adventures, but the real act of courage is to return to that door, turn the knob, walk through, unpack the bags, and start the kettle for a cup of tea.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book purely for fun. I savored every chapter of At Home in the World. I tucked it in my tote and took it with me to the beach in Malibu, a café in Fresno, and on a camping trip to Soledad Canyon with all my people. I devoured every delicious word. And when I got to the last page I was faced with the dilemma of either starting the book again or booking tickets for my own family of five to somewhere new.
**If you are an avid reader, I encourage you to check out some of my other book reviews. These books have carried me through seasons of tragedy and triumph.
I often serve on book launch teams as a way to get to know authors and their message better. I had the privilege of being part of Tsh Oxenreider’s team for At Home in the World.
Up next: I’ll be reviewing Remarkable Faith: When Jesus Marveled at the Faith of Unremarkable People by my friend Shauna Letellier for July. Pre-order it today!
What are your favorite summer reads for kids or adults? Comment below and let me know what you’re reading! Also, I send out a weekly Glorygram with stories, reading and podcast recommendations, and my recipes. I’d love to deliver it to your inbox. Opt in here.
It’s been more than two years since I’ve tasted Haitian fried chicken with plantains cooked over a charcoal burner.
It’s been more than two years since I’ve hugged the necks of the children in the orphanage who are now careening into their teen years.
It’s been more than two years since we have seen those goats on spindly legs grazing in the fields and stood at the edge of the muddy-red river.
It’s been more than two years since I have cupped the faces of my Haitian sisters and shared stories of God’s amazing grace.
This summer I’m going back.
I’m returning to Haiti to speak at the Esther Women’s conference at the end of July. I’m delighted to be taking my family, my daughter’s best friend, and my dear friend Rici Skei, who is also a pastor and dynamic worship leader from Fresno. This will be my third time teaching God’s word for this conference, which draws women of from four churches in the Northern Mountains of Haiti as part of Christian Friendship Ministries.
I can’t wait.
My first trip to Haiti was in the summer of 2001. That trip was led by my first husband Ericlee. In those 10 days, I absolutely fell in love with the Haitian people. I still remember looking out from the little prop plane as we departed the mountain town of Pignon. I gazed over the undulating hills and sapphire sky, and I knew deep inside my heart this was not my last trip to Haiti.
Haiti was home.
As many of you know, that was just the beginning of my relationship with Haiti. After quitting my job as a newspaper reporter for The Fresno Bee, I returned to the Northern mountains of Haiti the following January to teach English to some of the leaders I had met the summer before. Living there full-time was far different from a week-long mission trip but I was hooked.
I honed my language skills, wrote letters home to my friend Ericlee, and learned to embrace the solitude that is implicit when living in a country where so few people speak your native language.
The following summer of 2002 I helped lead another short-term trip to Haiti with Ericlee. As God would have it, Ericlee proposed to me at the top of one of the nation’s most well-known landmarks, the Citadel. This country that he visited every year since he was a child had brought us together. We started planning our wedding. Little did we know that God would call us to invest full-time in serving the Haitian people just a few years later when a devastating earthquake hit. We sunk in roots and cultivated long-term relationships.
My passport is full of stamps from this Caribbean island now. For much of our marriage, we took one or two trips a year – sometimes staying for as long as three months as Ericlee served as the Director and I focused on Communications/Marketing for the non-profit we helped start. My girls have Haiti embedded deep in their hearts. They have grown up with the kids in the orphanage next to our house. They learned to jump rope, braid hair, and suck on chicken bones from their Haitian friends.
Our last trip to Haiti was in spring of 2015 with my Haitian-born mother-in-law who grew up on the mission field. This was a very different kind of trip. After burying my Ericlee that September before, this was an extension of his memorial. We returned to mourn with our friends and family. I discovered on that trip that cancer may have snuffed out Ericlee’s life but it could never steal his legacy of faith. The Haitians honored him and loved on me, encouraged me and prayed over my future.
After leaving Haiti in 2015, I felt very clearly that God was calling me to step away from my work with the non-profit. I was entering a new season, living in Fresno, California, and raising my three daughters as widow. I needed my family and community in Fresno.
I needed time to grieve and heal.
Although I was confident in my decision, I didn’t anticipate the secondary loss I would experience leaving the ministry and my people in Haiti. I sat in the brokenness for months – grieving the loss of purpose, the death of dreams, the separation from community Ericlee and I had cultivated there.
These past two years, God has been stitching back together the wounds of my heart. He’s been growing in me a new sense of purpose. He’s given me permission to rest and dream again. He’s brought beauty from our ashes.
I’m also returning to Haiti because I have a story of restoration that I must tell. I know God is calling me to walk those dusty streets, to drink in the memories and to declare to the women of Northern Haiti that these dry bones have life again. I long to be an encouragement to them as they have been to me.
Now is an important time to return to take my daughters back to the community they so dearly love and to experience the legacy of their daddy anew. My oldest, Meilani, is excited about bringing her friend Tessa Schultz to experience Haiti with us. I also need to introduce my Haitian friends to my new husband, Shawn.
I actually began my friendship with Shawn back in 2001 in Haiti. He was part of that same mission team from our church that was led by Ericlee. Shawn and Ericlee were friends from high school. They were both runners and crossed paths many times through the years. On that trip, Shawn was assigned to be my prayer and coaching partner. We taught the Haitian kids how to jump hurdles and run sprints for the track & field camp.
Of course, I had no idea how God would thread together our lives all these years later and bring him as a kinsman-redeemer to our family. It is our joy to return to Haiti together as a family July 22-30.
Haiti is calling me. She’s calling me home.
There are three ways you can partner with us this summer:
- Join our prayer team. Simply comment below or send us a private message and we will keep you posted on specific prayer needs along the way. Your prayers are vital to us.
- Give a financial donation. This year’s plane tickets cost $1,200 per person so you can do the math and figure out the cost for a team of seven of us traveling to Haiti. It’s not cheap. Your tax-deductible donation is an investment not just in us but also in the people of Haiti. Whatever we raise beyond our travel needs will go to the women’s conference.
- Collect toiletries. Each year the women who attend the Esther women’s conferences look forward to the little “goodie bag” they will receive at the conference. This year, I’m collecting travel-sized toiletries to share with the women. If you’re at a hotel, save what you don’t use. You can also buy the travel sizes at your local drug store, Target, etc.
Follow our journey on Instagram! And please attend our community night to hear more about our trip. Details below!
Cooking has always been a place of creativity, community and comfort for me. I grew up in the kitchen stirring sauces with my mama, kneading dough with my Italian Nana, and rolling lumpia egg rolls with my Filipino grandma.
As an adult, I have gathered many friends and family members in my kitchen to cook together. When I was a young married girl, I hosted a Cooking Club in my home for almost eight years. It all started because one of my friends told me she didn’t know how to boil water. Another friend loved to cook and asked if we could swap recipes. I looked around me and realized there were a host of women longing to learn and get in the kitchen together.
Our Cooking Club was born. We would meet monthly. I would choose a theme and some core recipes. People would bring ingredients. The ladies would cook and the guys would clean. We tackled time-intensive projects like homemade gnocci and and rosemary focaccia bread. We discovered new ethnic cuisines like Ethiopian key wot and Hawaiian sweet potato casserole. We created Pumpkin Party soup using farmer’s market abundance.
Through the years, we all started having babies and the Cooking Club grew to well over 40 people coming each month. We finally took a break when my husband and I took an assignment working full-time for a non-profit organization in Haiti. I still look back on those gatherings with fond memories. Maybe one day we will revive Cooking Club when all our kiddos are in high school.
I believe there’s so much to learn when we gather together to get our hands messy, employ our creativity, and share stories around food.
This school year I had the opportunity to teach a series of cooking classes for my daughter’s fifth grade class. My daughters attend Kepler Neighborhood School, a local charter that focuses on project-based learning. I started by sharing the children’s book I wrote. Cora Cooks Pancit tells the story of a girl named Cora who is the youngest in her family. She ventures into the kitchen one day with her mama and learns to make a Filipino signature dish called pancit. In the process of cooking together, Cora learns about some family history and history of the Filipinos in California. The book concludes with the recipe for pancit.
When I visit classrooms to share my book, I often teach the kids to make pancit. They help me wash and chop the vegetables and add the noodles to the pan. I am always surprised at the number of kids who taste the dish at the end even though it’s full of vegetables and new flavors for them. I think they feel ownership because they were involved in the process of creating the pancit.
I taught five cooking classes for my daughter’s fifth grade class this school year. One of my favorite classes was teaching the kids the secret in the sauce. I have three go-to sauces in my Italian cooking repertoire. These sauces celebrate my Southern Italian roots and my own creativity.
I invited the kids to re-create two of the sauces – pesto and a sausage ragu. We talked about tips on combining ingredients. For example, a little sugar is added to tomato-based sauces to reduce the acidic.
Then I set the kids free to create their own recipes. I told them the ingredients in each sauce but I didn’t tell them the quantities or the process of making it. They had to be creative, think critically, measure, taste test and write their own recipes. Their teacher and I also made this into a math lesson so the students were practicing multiplying fractions.
I loved seeing the teamwork that happened naturally as the kids created their recipes. Some wanted to get their hands dirty and add ingredients. Others engaged their senses smelling the spices and tasting the sauces. A few dove right into the math problem, writing down the recipes. I thought back to my cooking club and how over the years each of those friends discovered their tastes and their gifts in the kitchen.
Each of these sauces are pretty simple to make. They do not require a lot of time or a long list of ingredients. They do require attention and love. The kids gained some practical skills in cooking but they also learned to engage their creativity in community.
I hope this summer you will take some time to gather some friends or your own children in the kitchen. You might choose a favorite family recipe or try one of these sauce recipes. If you want to get adventurous, you can cover up the quantities of each ingredient and let your kids explore and combine on their own. You might take advantage of this time together in the kitchen to tell stories about your grandpa or great-aunt who made a special recipe.
**I’d love to hear how it goes. Please come back and COMMENT below about your experiences. Did you find any creative uses for these sauces? Which was your favorite?
2 cups fresh basil leaves
½ cup walnuts or pine nuts
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup parmesan cheese
- Combine all ingredients in blender or food processor except cheese. Pulse or process until sauce has a course spreadable, texture.
- Stir in cheese at the end.
- A few options:
-Brush on pesto sauce top of chicken and grill or bake the chicken (30 minutes at 350 degrees).
-Mix in with cooked, hot pasta of your choice and serve.
-Spread pesto sauce on top of toast or pita bread for an appetizer.
Italian Sausage Ragu Sauce
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-1 onion, chopped
-1 (28-ounce can) crushed tomatoes
-1 (15-ounce can) can tomato sauce
-1 tablespoon dried oregano
-1 tablespoon fennel seed
-1 tablespoon basil
-1 tsp salt
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-1 teaspoon organic sugar
-1/2 cup parmesan cheese
-1 package uncooked Italian sausage (I love Trader Joe’s sweet Italian sausage.)
- Heat saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil.
- Meanwhile, chop 1 onion.
- If sausage is inside casings, squeeze out into a bowl. When oil is heated, add sausage to the oil. Use a potato smasher or a fork to break it up.
- Once the sausage is lightly browned, add onion and cook until clear/translucent.
- Add the spices: oregano, fennel seed, basil, salt, sugar.
- Chop two cloves garlic or mince in garlic press.
- Add sugar, parmesan cheese and mix together.
- Pour in cans of marinara sauce and tomato sauce. Simmer on low heat for 15 minutes. (Meanwhile, prep your favorite pasta/noodles.)
- Add to cooked pasta and garnish with more parmesan cheese.
-1 cup of butter
-1 cup heavy cream
-1/2 cup parmesan cheese
-1/4 teaspoon sea salt (or light sprinkle)
-1/4 teaspoon dried basil
- Combine butter and cream in a skillet or shallow frying pan.
- Heat to medium and let slowly simmer. Turn down heat once bubbles start. As bubbles form, sauce will thicken. Whisk frequently and be patient.
- Meanwhile, prepare your pasta as desired.
- Add salt and basil to sauce.
- Stir in parmesan cheese.
- Pour over pasta and serve.
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By Melissa Ens
“Good grief, Charlie Brown.” I’ve sighed a lot these last few years and wondered what kind of grief, exactly, is the good kind? True, there is godly sorrow that leads to repentance, (2 Cor. 7:10) but what I’ve needed is sorrow that would lead to healing.
In December 2011, my husband, our 3 children and I moved to Peru, where we expected to live for the next decade. Less than two and a half years later, however, we moved back to Fresno, brokenhearted after saying goodbye to our friends, our dreams, and the best golden retriever in the world.
In California and in Peru, seasons come and go. Yet even years later, memories mixed with grief can surface. I still sometimes hesitate to feel and release the sadness they stir up for fear that releasing will somehow mean forgetting.
And that’s what I really don’t want.
I don’t want to forget the wonder I felt in the warmth of our first southern hemisphere’s holiday season. The wonder of arriving in a new country with dreams of a new life there. Our kids’ first Peruvian church service. The ladies spontaneously taking Mikaela and me to see Juanita’s amazing nativity display with hundreds of animals and figurines. (How I miss those mujeres!)
I want to remember Pastor George picking us up near midnight on Christmas Eve, driving us through the plaza to see the decorations on the way to his home to share Christmas with his family. (We still laugh about Timothy falling asleep in the car and then sleeping on the couch through the whole gathering. He was sure after that he’d never been to Pastor George’s house!)
I remember the oddness of seeing Christmas decorations – snowmen, Santas and wrapping paper – on display right next to swimsuits and beach towels for the summer vacation that was just beginning. We got our kids a pool for Christmas the next year and our dog barked in circles around them as they splashed the January afternoons away with our Peruvian pastor’s kids.
Maybe you’ve seen Panetón here. (It’s a sweet cake with candied fruit pieces that Peruvians can’t celebrate holidays without.) Walking through the supermercados there, I was stunned by the endcaps stocked and shelves sky high with boxes and boxes (and hundreds more boxes) of Panetón. Christmas “chocolatadas” for the neighborhood kid ministries meant gallons of hot chocolate made over a wood fire in a huge pot in the back of Anny’s house. (And more panetón.)
And the music… It’s the music I miss the most. I fell in love with Peruvian Christmas music at that first Christmas Eve service. There was even more music in the malls and markets, in restaurants, and the town plazas all decorated for Christmas with trees, trees and more (artificial, but huge and fancy) Christmas trees.
In 2013, suspecting it might be our last December there, I bought a couple recordings of the traditional Christmas music piped everywhere during the holidays. Two years later I was back in Fresno with those CD’s in my hands.
I had yet to listen to them.
I held them that morning in 2015 and read the titles of the songs wondering what kind of flood of grief would come crashing on the shore of my heart when I heard them. (The year before, I couldn’t even stand the idea.) Now would it bring a tsunami of tears that would wash me away? Or would I just laugh at how awful some of the music was?
I recalled the Christmas program at church our last December in Peru. The kids performed and I had recorded Toby’s class on my phone. As I held the CD’s, I was terrified realizing I didn’t know where that phone was, or if the photos and videos were backed up anywhere. No matter that if I played that song Toby would run away to hide from the grief it stirred up. He couldn’t handle it yet, but I needed to find it so I could hold it in my hands and listen to it again and not run away.
I think now that’s what good grief is. It’s whatever grief we don’t run away from but are willing to run to Jesus with. It’s grief we allow Jesus to carry us through. It’s grief we allow to rain down or well up and felt for what it means – that something or someone we love is no longer with us in the way they used to be.
Good grief recognizes the good that was and accepts the sadness in holding it as just a memory now.
Dreams, hopes, and even places we held dear in our hearts become part of us. When we lose them or have to let them go, it hurts and we need space to grieve. In our case, leaving Peru meant we all grieved the loss of friendships, the surrender of dreams, and saying goodbye to a place, people (and even a dog) we truly loved.
I finally understand good grief.
Good grief trusts that even as specifics of memories fade, it really is the love that remains. I might not remember everyone’s names, but I will forever carry love for them in my heart. Good grief trusts that carrying love and being carried by Love will be enough.
I knew someday we’d look back and marvel at the fact that we really lived in Peru. I knew it would eventually feel a bit like a dream, but the sadness helps me know it was real. The ache helps me know we really did live there, and we really did love there. I am thankful for that.
Immanuel is still with us. In many ways, healing has come. Grief (and sadly, memories) will continue to fade. But love will always remain.
Melissa Ens loves Jesus, singing, words, learning, laughing, watching sunsets with her hubby of 21 years and playing games with her kids. She thinks praying with a pen and journal or talking with friends are the best forms of therapy ever. She used to blog at Musing Melissa, but these days is working on finishing and sharing her story. She’s excited about visiting loved ones in Peru this summer.
Don’t miss the other articles in this “Navigating Grief as Life Moves Forward” series. Feel free to SHARE with a friend who might need these words of encouragement.
The Garden – an introduction to the series
Grieving Together – an article on grieving with children
Choosing Joy – a guest post about a spouse choosing joy even on a long cancer journey
When a Grandparent Dies – a guest post about how one mom is navigating her own grief and grief with her kids
Facing Triggers and Trauma – an article about steering through grief when triggers and trauma arise
This weekend our agenda was to have no agenda. After a harried and hurried month of February – full of Valentine’s Day festivities, Monday holidays, birthday parties, meetings and more – we needed a break. On Saturday, we slept in, made a late brunch of pumpkin pancakes and chicken sausage. We wore our jammies until noon. I can’t remember the last time I did that. It was glorious!
Saturday evening we invited our Haitian friend, Gerby, to dinner. He has been in town throughout the last six months for chemo and radiation treatments for cancer. Miraculously, he is growing stronger each day and his scans have been clear. Having him in our home was a fresh reminder that each day is precious and time together around the table is to be savored.
Gerby helped us make some of our favorite Haitian foods, while I wrote down and tinkered with the recipes. We made a huge pot of Soup Joumou (Pumpkin & Beef Soup). This recipe is part of a children’s writing project I’m working on. (I’ll have to share that one another time.)
We also cooked up a pot of my girls’ favorite – Haitian Rice & Beans. After living in and traveling to Haiti many times over the last decade, our family has come to love this staple in Haitian cuisine. It sounds simple but the flavors have a surprising depth with a mix of garlic, cloves and peppers to season the rice. When rice and beans are combined they have a certain synergy that makes them a “complete protein.” This also serves as a hearty main dish if you’re on a budget. We were all scraping the pot at the end for the last spoonful of “diri ak pwa!”
Haitian Rice & Beans
3 cloves garlic
1 cup dried red kidney beans or pinto beans
2 teaspoons salt, divided
6 cups of water
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 cups rice
2 tablespoons salted butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon green pepper, minced
½ teaspoon thyme
¼ teaspoon cloves
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 quart organic chicken broth
1. Add 6 cups of water to a pot. Rinse beans and add to water with 1 teaspoon salt and 3 whole cloves of garlic.
2. Boil the beans for 45 minutes to 1 hour until they are just soft. (You can test the beans by cooling one and pressing it together with your fingers. You do not want to overcook them because they will be heated again with the rice.)
3. Add 1 teaspoon salt & pepper. Set beans aside.
4. Dice green pepper.
5. In a large pot, brown butter. Add garlic, salt, thyme, cloves, and green pepper to saute for a few minutes.
6. Add olive oil and rice. Coat rice with oil and spices.
7. While rice begins to cook, strain beans.
8. Add 1 quart organic chicken broth and cook for 15 minutes on medium-high or until liquid evaporates.
9. Add beans to rice and cook an additional 10 minutes or until rice and beans are fully cooked.
Makes approximately 12 servings.
Last night I woke to the sound of my 5-year-old whimpering in the next room. I ran in to check on her. “Mama, mama, I had the baddest dream,” came her trembling voice. I climbed into the top bunk bed next to her and laid down. “Mama’s here,” I assured her. She put her little hand in mine. Immediately, I felt her body relax. She drifted back to sleep. In that moment, I realized what my baby-girl needed was my presence.
That little scenario made me pause. I couldn’t help thinking about the emotions I have felt in the weeks following the election and the Inauguration last Friday. This season has been harrowing to say the least. I have voted in six presidential elections in my lifetime, and I never remember it being this bad. The divisiveness, the name calling, the character bashing, the violence, the fear, the dismissiveness of those in my community grieves me.
Immediately following the election, I read a lot of posts on social media that people should stop being crybabies about the outcome. I read more of the same after the Inauguration on Friday and the Women’s March on Saturday. These were painful to read because there is so much more at stake here. It’s not a simple, “Your team won; mine lost” scenario. Meanwhile, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have also been teeming with posts about hate crimes and sexual assaults committed, about friends with families and local businesses who fear being deported, about school children expressing uncertainty about their future.
My heart aches for my people and our country.
I have been searching for my place in all this. I have been asking myself, “How can I use my voice as a woman, as a multi-ethnic American, and as a Christian in this climate? How can I leverage my privileges to lift up the most vulnerable? How can I offer grace and love to my neighbor in tense times like these?” The answer I keep hearing is related to what my 5-year-old taught me when she was fighting her nightmare. I need to offer up the “ministry of presence.”
In this context, a “ministry of presence” means moving in close to listen, laying down our defensiveness and agendas, and offering up empathy instead. I have been reading Ann Voskamp’s latest book, The Broken Way, and she reminds me anew that Jesus always moves into the places of grief and offers up the ministry of presence. She writes, “In a broken world, isn’t the call always to koinonia, to communion with community that bears our burdens with us? Wasn’t suffering then actually a call for us to be a community, to stand together and bear under, trusting that arms of love are always under us?”
I have been offered the gift of presence several times in my life, and it has been important to my healing. When I was in college, I was walking to class one day and two men grabbed me from behind. In the days that followed that sexual assault, fear rose up inside me like an all-consuming monster. Thankfully, I escaped rape but the damage to my mind had already been done. I could not walk down the street or a hallway without feeling anxiety or going into a panic attack.
During that season, a dear friend and her boyfriend (who later in life became a police officer) decided to be present with me. They woke up early every morning and walked me to my classes. They waited around to see me home in the evenings. It was a simple gesture but their presence made all the difference in the world. Little by little – through counseling and mountains of prayers over many years – I regained confidence. I found the tools to combat my fear. Of course, it was unrealistic for them to be my bodyguards for life but their willingness to be present with me in that initial season was a powerful gift.
More than 15 years later, I faced a devastating stage four cancer diagnosis for my beloved husband. This was a different kind of trauma. During that journey, I had hundreds of people who offered to help us in tangible ways but it was the ones who offered the “ministry of presence” whom I needed the most. Friends came to play worship music for my husband in his final days. Friends came to sit with us through the long hours of the night when he faced the most pain, and I was the most exhausted. My community stood with me by the graveside, and they offered my young daughters and me a safe space to grieve in the months to follow.
One family offered us the gift of their presence just a few months after his death when it was time to buy a Christmas tree. Our family’s tradition was to go to a local Christmas tree lot and pick out a tree with Daddy. As the time drew closer to Christmas, dread heightened in my heart. Our friends asked me this question, “How can we be present for you this season? What’s something we can do to support you?” They agreed to accompany us to the Christmas tree lot.
The girls ran down the aisles of the tree lot in search of the perfect tree with their friends. The husband helped secure it to my car. My dear friend hugged me tight as we put it up in our home. The tears pooled in my eyes when a gathering of friends came to decorate our tree. We shared ornaments with all of them as reminders of my husband and his quirky personality.
This simple act was healing for our family because it was more than a “like” on Facebook or an act of service, more than a check or card in the mail. They were not focused on giving advice or urging me to get over it. These friends stepped into a messy, awkward situation full of grief and memories, and they were present. They listened to our needs and offered to go with us on the journey. We were not alone.
I give these two examples because I believe in these challenging times we are all called to the “ministry of presence.” It’s easy to mouth off on Twitter or re-post that article on Facebook that supports our views, but the reality is people are hurting and scared. The most courageous thing we can do is listen. The bravest thing we can do is stand with them.
We recently visited a family who has adopted children from Ethiopia and Mexico. A picture of Donald Trump flashed on the television behind us. Their middle son asked his mama again and again if his brother would be deported. She told me he has asked hundreds of times in the last week. His parents try to reassure him and offer up comfort, but it’s hard.
I sat at my kitchen table the other day listening to the story of a dear friend who has been working for years to get her American citizenship. The process has been hairy. She watched the election with fear and trembling, realizing the ramifications for her family after living and contributing in the U.S. for decades. I listened. She educated me. She spoke with courageous faith and prayed for God to make a way for her now.
I recently dined with a group of my heart friends at a local Indian restaurant, where we often celebrate each other’s birthdays. This group of friends represents a diversity of cultures and professions. We all attend different churches and live in different parts of the city. It was important to be present with each other, to sit face to face and listen to each other’s unique experiences. One woman’s son was afraid his grandma (who is a citizen) will be sent back to El Salvador. Another friend said one of her clients just chose to move to Mexico to escape all that is happening.
I considered my own multi-ethnic daughters, whose hair colors and skin colors vary in hue. How would these next four years shape their cultural identities? Would they endure comments and prejudice? As mamas, my friends and I contemplated: How can we administer grace, teach resilience and model peace in our communities and our homes?
My challenge to myself and to you is to ask: How can I be present for someone today? This is not just about acts of service or help. It’s taking time to listen, to empathize, to grieve alongside others.
These are some practical examples that have inspired me:
-invite friends to dinner and ask them to share their stories
-walk to school with neighbors and friends
-make something and deliver it to a neighbor from a different cultural background and ask them how they are doing
-offer to sit and be present with someone who is grieving
-read books to your children about empathy, kindness and other cultures
-stand with someone in your community who is afraid
-speak up against racist or sexist remarks
Friends, this is how we can be used by God in these uncertain times. In Matthew 1:23, an angel announces the birth of Jesus Christ: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us.’)” God chose to put on flesh and come to earth as a baby, who grew to be a man, who chose to be with people, to walk alongside them in their suffering, and lay down his life for them.
In the same way, we are designed to dwell with others in community. We need to carve out space for lament in our churches. We need to ask the hard questions and listen to our neighbor’s story. We need to set aside our political differences and be present with others, especially those vulnerable during this season. This is activism too. We need to seize the opportunity to be Immanuel – God with us – to those in our community.
**This article was previously published on www.inAllthings.org.
Rather than a pat-myself-on-the-back moment, this was a stoop-lower opportunity. I was acutely aware that feeding Mary or offering someone dignity through a smile or learning their name or advocating for the homeless is really not about charity or me changing the world as much as it is about obedience to the gospel.