Under the Stars and City Lights

The first time I drove myself to college at night, I was shoved off the interstate onto the wrong exit and got lost in downtown Dallas. As a somewhat inexperienced driver who had been downtown only once in fourth grade, to say I was terrified is an understatement of massive proportions.

The scene that greeted me only heightened my fear. The buildings were old and run-down, nothing like the glittering skyscrapers I had seen from the highway. It seemed like the lanes were two sizes too small and were always going the wrong way. And the nearby pedestrians… well, I could tell they weren’t exactly hitting up the Myerson Symphony Center anytime soon.

I pulled into a gas station and drew a deep breath (after making double-sure my car doors were locked). There were only a couple of other cars in the station, but the empty parking lot next door was practically paved with glittery glass shards. I could only imagine what had transpired over there—where those glass shards came from and how they got there—and I couldn’t help but feel vulnerable. My hands were shaking, not from the January chill as much as from fright, as I pulled out my phone to Google Map my way to campus.

I passed that parking lot on my way back to the interstate and didn’t think about it again.

About a year later, in the following December, I found myself burned out on the service project I had been doing for the last two and a half years. Despite the project being similar to what I had grown up doing (working with children), I never felt that invested, and I knew I was wasting valuable time (which is a whole other blog). I was growing miserable; I dreaded service every week, and I hated that such was the case. Service was supposed to be fulfilling and rife with opportunities to see God at work, not stressful.

Hearing about my struggle, a friend suggested I join him for his service project. He had been serving in a homeless ministry ever since I had known him, but I didn’t know much about it. I was curious, and I knew it would be safer if I went in a group, so I agreed.

We carpooled with some other DBU students and made our way to the city. I wasn’t driving this time, but I recognized the dark parts of town, and the nerves began to take over again. However, with my friend in the seat next to me and my pride to maintain, I forced my anxiety to stay in my head.

We parked in front of a bakery, and the whole group convened in an empty parking lot—one I recognized as the one I had seen on my little expedition back in January. Before I could fully process that realization, the leader of our group started explaining what was happening. This wasn’t just a ministry or some offshoot of a bigger church—it was a whole, independent church that met outside and served the streets of downtown Dallas. We, as volunteers, were to walk the streets and ask anyone we came across if they had any prayer requests or were interested in free Chik-Fil-A.

Every alarm bell I had went off. For twenty years, I was told to never speak to strangers and to avoid compromising situations of all types, and I was being asked to break both of those principles at the same time. And there were no children in sight to hide behind.

The friend I had come with, of course, was a nonplussed pro, only shooting me a quizzical look at my expression before someone started to pray.

Pray I did—and with my eyes open, too. (I know, so rebellious.) I had no idea what to expect as I trotted behind my group for the rest of the night.

One year after that fateful Wednesday night, I have been attending West End Church almost every week. I’ve been able to serve actively in ways I never was able to serve in my home church, and I’ve found fulfillment in a place I never thought I would. I have never feared for my own safety; instead, I have grown more comfortable with and more aware of my surroundings. And, most significantly, I have learned so much about how people relate to each other and to God.

I’ll be frank: I grew up in what most people would call a rich-kid town. Even though my family wasn’t particularly well-off compared to some of our neighbors, I was still raised with certain expectations for everyday life. Even though I knew these expectations were unrealistic for most of the world, it never really changed the way I thought or behaved. It took some time hanging out downtown twice a week with people who live such a different life from my own to really make that knowledge real and relatable.

Just driving through that scene wasn’t enough. I actually had to leave my comfort zone—get out of the car—and interact with the things that frightened me to discover what life in the city streets was really like. Most of the things I was scared of turned out to be much less scary when I obeyed God’s leading, and I’ve grown tremendously as a result. I’ve learned that the places that look the least God-like are the places where He wants to send us, to mold us and shape us all into kingdom-minded followers.

And you know what? I still don’t know what to expect each time I cross that parking lot and venture onto the streets. I’ve learned to face the unexpected with grace—or at least more grace than I had the first time I was down there. My comfort zone stretches just a little bit more every week, and even when the weather is cold or wet and I just want to go inside, I love it.

Written by Catherine

Image credit: Charles Guo, a member of the church. The friend who first invited me is mysteriously missing from this picture, but there are plenty of other friends here!

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The Man on the Train

At a train stop somewhere between Berlin and Frankfurt, I dragged ten days’ worth of luggage from one car of the InterCity Express to another. My seat was at the end of the aisle, and my seatmate—an elderly stranger—was already settled into the window spot.

Two steps before my row, I was intercepted by one of my group leaders. “Do you want to switch seats with me?” he asked.  His intentions were sweet, but his inquiry was based on a false assumption that I, a female American student, would have a problem riding next to the German gentleman.

“No, that’s okay,” I assured my classmate, mulling over the possibility before me, “I’m fine.” To prove my point, I hoisted my bag into the nearest luggage rack and slid into my rightful seat. He looked skeptical, but he quickly forgot his concern and re-submerged himself into the conversation consuming the majority of our fellow DBU classmates.

This was the final day of our study-abroad class in Germany; first thing tomorrow morning we would be on a non-stop flight back to Dallas. Everybody—professors included—seemed to be done. Done with learning and done with new cultural experiences. I couldn’t blame them. It had been a long, exhausting trip. The introverted part of me, the rarely-disputed queen of my personality, longed to put in earbuds and mentally disappear from the whole world. Too bad, though, because I had a hunch that I might be sitting next to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Either he was being polite or the rowdy chatter of the other Americans had somehow evaded his notice, because as the train pulled out the gray-haired man addressed me with the most obvious of questions: “Where are you from?” I couldn’t fathom how he could mistake us for anything but Americans, but I didn’t care. He spoke English. And even better, he was speaking to me.

“We’re college students from Texas,” I explained, “We’re here to study the Reformation.”

His eyes lit up the way mine do when people talk about the American Revolution. “Ahh. Martin Luther.” He smiled and motioned out the train window. We were already racing past open fields. “This is Luther Country.”

I nodded earnestly, but said nothing. I didn’t want our conversation to die, but my natural shyness was creeping to the surface. “It’s…beautiful,” I managed.

Almost as afterthought to his own comment rather than a response to mine, the man added, “If you want to know about anything, please ask me.”

I let his words sink in slowly.

To my left, the guy who offered to swap seats was engrossed in a book about Reformation leadership. I’d always dreamed of traveling to a foreign country and befriending a local, an eyewitness to history who could teach me what no tour guide or professor ever could.

Behind me, the other Americans shared a collective laugh, probably about one of the memes in the group message. I aspire to experience culture apart from tourist traps and to resist the natural urge to retreat into my own worldview.

To my right, the fulfillment of my dreams sat between me and the German countryside which was alive with yellow blooms. The seconds felt like minutes. Take him up on his offer, I begged myself. Ask him something. Ask him anything.

I stared out the window, denying myself the words I so desperately wanted to form. Yellow and green fields flashed by.

“The flowers,” I blurted, bubbling with excitement. “I’ve seen those yellow flowers everywhere. What are they called?”

It was all I could come up with, but somehow it was enough.

For the next hour, the man on the train, whom I learned was a retired professor, gave me a crash course in all things German. He talked extensively about growing up in post-World War II Germany in the days before reunification. My new friend shared stories about taking the very train we were on to visit his relatives in East Germany. When we barreled past what he said was the former Soviet checkpoint, the other Americans didn’t lift their eyes, but mine were wide with wonder. I soaked up the professor’s wisdom on distinguishing the economic, geographical, and architectural scars of a divided Germany. I marveled at his insight on the evolution of Germany’s political landscape. I even enjoyed pictures from his vacation in the United States.

Before I knew it, his stop arrived. After talking so easily over the past hour, my mind once again struggled to form proper words of gratification for all he had shared.

As it turned out, it was he, not I, who would deliver a thank you goodbye.

“Your country is going to be okay,” the professor assured me as he collected his things. I realized he was referring to the discussion we had about the current situation of American politics. “You’re a strong country.” He paused. “I am grateful for what America did to help Germany form a democracy after the fall of National Socialism. Without that, we would not have prospered the way we have.”

I was stunned. Had he just thanked me, as an American, for the gift of democracy? “Thank you,” I insisted.

He smiled one last time. “Enjoy the rest of your time in Germany.” And with that, he was gone.

I never did catch his name.

The last leg of the ride was the most void of people, but it was also the noisiest. My homebound friends enjoyed themselves openly with jokes and stories. I finally appeased my introvert queen by inserting my earbuds and hiding behind my travel journal, content to remain an outsider of my group. I had a wealth of memories to record before the exhaustion of the journey faded the memory of my brief time with the professor. There was much to say, but I knew where it was important to begin.

“I am grateful for what America did to help Germany…”

Written by Savanna

Image credit: Savanna Mertz

The Caravan Outside Campus

It is the dead of winter. Normally, I would be at home with my family recovering from the holidays, but not today. I am at school—or, more accurately, at work. My on-campus job has called me in to cover a shift, just for a day or two. I am more than happy to comply, and not just because I prefer to keep my job. Since I’m only going to be at school for two days, my parents have granted me control of one of the family cars, which is a rare treat that I fully intend to enjoy.

Like a true rebel, I am going to go off-campus and pick up a nice Chipotle burrito with the hour I have off for lunch. (So edgy, I know.) I hop in my dad’s little silver Accord, adjust the hedgehog ornament hanging from the rearview mirror, and back out of the parking lot, feeling like a real grown-up. As I coast to a stop at the edge of campus, I’m singing with the radio, and all is right with the world.

I look to my left, and I see a few cars heading in my direction. Being the overly-cautious driver I am, I decide to wait for them to pass, since there’s no one behind me to scold me with a blaring horn. It isn’t until it’s too late that I realize how slowly they’re driving and how many cars there are. They’re all in the right lane, hazard lights blinking out of sync with one another.

Baffled, I look up the street to determine the source of this slow-moving party, and one car, ominously long and black, stands out from all the rest. Red, white, and blue fabric flaps from the car’s roof. Suddenly, I remember the last time I attended a DBU baseball game, when the entire stadium dropped everything and paused to quietly stand at attention as, in the near distance, a trumpet played a long, sad song. I remember the one thing I constantly forget about the Dallas Baptist University campus:

Its next-door neighbor is the Dallas/Fort Worth National Cemetery.

I freeze. Breathing too loudly no longer feels appropriate. One by one, the cars in the caravan pass by, the passengers barely giving me and my hedgehog a passing glance.

Reality crashes down on me as I realize that someone in this caravan sacrificed everything for the freedom I was relishing just a few seconds ago. Without that person, I might not have the funding to attend school. I might not have my job, which is a work-study position. Without this person, I might not be able to take off at my leisure and go as I please. Without this sacrifice, I might not be able to choose from a plethora of restaurants just a few miles down the road. I might not have a car at my disposal. I might not even have a driver’s license. Without this person’s willing and selfless sacrifice, nothing I am doing at this moment, none of these little things I rarely stop to consider, would be guaranteed.

In a daze, I realize one of the cars is coming to a stop, and I see the driver kindly wave at me. I shake my head and gesture at them to keep going, and they acknowledge me with another wave. Part of me wonders why they would risk making the drivers behind them mad for stopping, but then I remember why they’re all here. That one person is not the only one who has given up everything for my comfort. Their friends and family do that every day. Even now, as they lay their friend and family member to rest, they care for strangers more than they care for themselves.

The last of the caravan is a pair of police motorcycles, red and blue lights glaring. They wave at me as if to thank me, and I wave back as I prepare to drive away. I can see them in my rearview mirror as I turn onto the street, disappearing around the bend. My focus goes back to the road, but now I’m praying instead of singing as I go.

Thank you, Lord, for the freedom I have in you. Thank you for the freedom you give to all who ask, and for the freedom you have blessed our country with. Thank you for the men and women who defend that freedom every day. Thank you for being with them, comforting them, and loving them. Thank you for giving them the strength to keep going when everything is falling apart, when they want nothing more than to wrest control from you. Thank you for this person’s life; whoever he or she is gave everything in love, just as you did when you sent your Son. Thank you for that courage and that sacrifice. Thank you for the friends and families, and their willingness to give up something so precious to them. Continue to be with those who are grieving today; you are the only one who can truly ease that pain. Help them appreciate the freedom you have offered every one of us, and help me never to forget that again.

Based on a true story

Written by Catherine

Image credit: Carole Sampeck, used with permission in honor and memory of Adrian Sampeck

A Bedtime Story: How the UWC Came to Be StanNation

Once upon a time, there was a colorful, crowded room deep in the underground of a university learning center. It was often noisy in that place: people strolled by the door chatting and laughing loudly, the elevator ran up and down between the floors with clanking and groaning and wheezing, snack and drink machines constantly clinked and whooshed, and sometimes the Scantron machine sounded like a machine gun in this hidden place buried in the cavernous basement often referred to as “the dungeon.” Those who worked in this windowless room were definitely the best of best; these workers were chosen for their love of reading and writing, and they all carried GPAs which proved their attachment to things academic. These fine folk, however, had a competitive spirit. And they loved all things Christmas because it not only designated their Savior’s birth, it also gave them an opportunity to plan and scheme and keep secrets. The story of StanNation actually begins with those very traits: a love of Christmas, planning, scheming, and keeping secrets.

At the time of this strange christening, there was a Student Coordinator named Carrie, who was something of a legend. Her name was known far and wide as the APA expert, and she coached minions in the intricacies of that format. She also had the chutzpah to consult with her boss on the tone and direction of that ogre’s papers. Nevertheless, she smiled more and was kinder than anyone who had ever graced the dungeon before. But she carried an evil secret deep within her heart: Carrie was miffed, angry, outraged even that her office had worked crazily every single year and had yet to win the annual Christmas decorating contest. Never mind that they enjoyed the effort. Put aside how much they relished the outcome. To heck with the acclamations they received from visitors. She wanted the coveted prize: a pizza party. And she would have it! She would.

That fateful Friday afternoon 29 October 2010, at 4:55 p.m. sharp, she sent out the missive:

 

TOP SECRET!!!

Hello, comrades. …  Here in the UWC, we love Christmas. We have put forth a valiant decorating effort every year, receiving an honorable mention twice. But this year… we are going for number ONE. That’s right. We will join the ranks of Babe Ruth, Michael Phelps, and George Washington.

Here’s the plan, Stan… (PS… everyone’s code name is Stan when talking about this project)

We are going to make a gingerbread village. We have plans. BIG plans. … We will come sneak into the UWC and build. If we build it, they will come. The judges, that is. And they will be blown away by our mad skills and lovely tastes in decoration. Oh, and we will offer them gingerbread men to eat. (Bribing works wonders.) SO… come join us in decorating/dominating. …

Yours truly,

Stan

 

From that day forward, all the staff was known as Stan. In fact, one follow-up email was quite funny. See for yourself:

 

Christmas decorating, which shall henceforth be referred to as “quilt-making” for the purpose of secrecy, shall commence at 4 pm this Sunday. Be there.

Stan’s father will be coming to help with construction of our “quilt-making.” There will be hammers, staple-guns, and other cool power tools, so you guys will have fun. Girls too. I like power tools. But I REALLY like gingerbread and candy.

I get goose bumps when I think about how awesome our dungeon is going to look.

Have a great Thanksgiving! See you on Sunday for the quilt-making. Oh, we’re going to dinner afterwards too. We can just call dinner “dinner.” I don’t think we have to be too secretive about that. I mean, every office probably eats dinner, whether individually or collectively. Let me know if you hear of any breach of security, though, and we can adapt as needed.

Yours truly,

Stan.

PS- This is not Truett. This is Stan. My computer has momentarily been commandeered by Stan, so I commandeered Truett’s (oh, I mean Stan’s) computer.

 

Clearly confusion ensued. Still, decorating commenced, continued, and indeed, was quite successful. Or so they thought.

Sadly, the Stans still did not win the 2010 Christmas decorating contest. The staff was perturbed that the winners dominated by bringing forth Jerusalem with live animals and a newborn baby. They were sorely disappointed when they went to see the winning office, and there was nothing left but an empty manger, straw on the floor, and a construction-paper Jerusalem on the walls. Yet, they were gracious, congratulating the winners warmly even as they vowed to win next year.

Woefully, 2011 brought them only second place. They vowed that 2012 would be their year. They would surely win. But perhaps the fly in the ointment was the fact that each and every team member was called Stan. Nobody knew who was who. And that, my friends, was a problem. They bumbled around: everybody answering or nobody answering queries and responding to suggestions. It was like the fifteen stooges were in the office as they attempted to plan and decorate. Once more, other offices attained the coveted prize. And the UWC staff declared that somehow, the Stans would find a way to communicate and win.

To that end, Carrie instructed each Stan adapt his or her name by adding Stan to a portion of his or her given moniker: she became HamilStan. Others became Briggstan, VannaStan, Stanlee, Stanison, and so forth until all were individuals again.  Still, it was another year before the UWC grabbed the treasure they so craved. In 2013, they celebrated with the grand reward: a pizza party. They laughed, they high-fived, they ate, they drank, they made very merry. And they won again in 2015! Hooray for knowing who is who when decorating is under way.

That, my friends, is the legacy of Carrie. All UWC staff will henceforth be known as Stan, and the tiny, bright nation in the dark cavern will forever be StanNation.

The end.

Written by Ka

Image credit: Ka Riley