Welcome Home

Along with cooler mornings, this Thanksgiving has brought the reality of a dear uncle’s final days. He is a young man, not yet 60. Cancer has laid a stake in his body and isn’t backing down. His beautiful children and grandchildren made the journey to East Texas along with him. 

Tonight, after second helpings of dinner and dessert had been cleaned away… after a last round of card games and dominoes had wrapped up and victors declared, we gathered around our uncle, brother, and son seeking mercy and comfort through prayer.

To see my 90 year old grandmother hold the hand of her dying child and call upon God’s grace was heartwrenching. A poet once wrote, “How much fear can one woman carry? How many children can she stand to bury?” She has buried three children in her time on this earth. She will bury another. Her faith that brings a peace to her heart and fills her home with love and respect every Thanksgiving, is something for which I am thankful. Watching her children, grandchildren, and great children gather around her and her son in strength and admiration, is beautiful.  I am thankful for this.

Witnessing this uncle return to the home of his family, to be welcomed with open arms and so much love, is something for which I am thankful. Our family having the opportunity to say goodbye to this beloved member is something for which I am thankful. Having this family is something for which I am thankful. Having faith that this uncle is surrounded by mercy and love of a gracious God who will look upon his face and state, “Welcome home, my son”, is something for which I am thankful.

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Shackled Grace

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Ngozi was a pretty girl with fine, delicate features and a dazzling smile. She was a happy girl and truly loved school. Her favorite subject was science and she read as much as she could at school because she did not have any books at home. Ngozi grew up in a Somali village until the age of nine. That was when the rebels came. They tore through, destroying the simple patch homes with fire, slaughtering innocence and driving out her family. Upon returning from school, Ngozi found her burning home but not her parents and siblings. Along with other schoolchildren and the few adults who dared come back to collect scattered belongings, she fled on foot away from all she had ever known.  She walked and walked, frightened and unsure of where her steps led her. Days later temporary lodging was found and a terrified Ngozi was given to a family who agreed that she may stay with them until she could be reunited with her family. As the days passed, she often remembered her mother, sister, classmates and missed going to school. She remained with her adoptive “family” and in exchange for their generosity, she was required to care for the younger children, do laundry and help with cooking. She was not permitted to attend school or read. To comfort herself, she made a small doll to look like her mother out of leaves and straw. At the age of 12, as payment towards her servitude, Ngozi was forced into prostitution. She was unclean and therefore forced to sleep outside of the hut ruled by her adoptive father. By 14, she was in a violent arranged marriage which later gave to her a daughter of her own.

Ngozi and I met when she was about 19; her chubby cheeked daughter just a toddler. They had arrived to the U.S. only two weeks before with her husband. Upon arrival, an apartment had been secured for them in the same community as the husband’s family. This is common practice in refugee resettlement as it typically ensures a more successful resettlement process. However for Ngozi any dream she had of a better life, away from the camps was stolen from her. She had been kicked out of the home by her husband and forced to fend for herself. We had never seen this happen in our work before, but there she stood, a small torn suitcase in one hand and the other wrapped in her daughter’s tiny fingers. As a refugee, the agency with which I worked was able to provide some basic support services to Ngozi. However the help was minimal and it was imperative that she find work. Unsure of just how to handle the situation, Ngozi was brought to my office by her caseworker to see if I could arrange for special assistance. She stood quietly with her head down, not looking up to greet my eyes. She was slight of frame and it was a struggle to support the bustling activity of her very active little one. Ngozi did speak some English and in an attempt to converse with her, I asked if I could give her daughter a toy and lollipop. The child began playing on the floor, freeing Ngozi’s tired arms. I had lunch delivered for us and the look on her face was quite comical when she held the chicken and vegetable spinach wrap sandwich and fruit smoothie. She had never eaten green bread and looked at it skeptically. However she was hungry and within minutes the lunch had been completely consumed. The next order of business was locating an apartment for her. Concerned for Ngozi’s safety, I was able to find a one room apartment in the same community where I lived. This would remove her completely from the Somali community but provide someone she knew close by in case of retaliation or other emergency.

We were separated in age by only a few years. Somehow this provided her some comfort and her story began to unfold. As she spoke, her long, graceful fingers would sweep the delicate features of her face in shame. I remember thinking how beautiful her hands were considering the struggle that bound them. She was bright, hopeful…even in the face of all she experienced. She dreamed of becoming a teacher. For three months she lived as my neighbor. A few times a week, often late at night, I would hear a slight tapping on my door. Ngozi would stand there, always with an apology for disturbing me, although it never was a disturbance. Her daughter had a severe diaper rash, or she was unsure how to work the oven or she needed help understanding forms for medical and food assistance. I often saw her sweeping…sweeping not only her apartment in absence of a vacuum cleaner, but sweeping the stoop of the entire row of apartments that surrounded hers. As she swept, she would hum. Upon seeing me she would wave her hand with a shining smile. It is really quite amazing…the power of the human spirit to overcome extreme adversity and still smile so genuinely.

Her public assistance ran out and after trying for a few months to find work and take care of her child without any support, sadly Ngozi fell back into the violence of her husband’s home. Overwhelmed, hungry, without food or a job to provide money, she felt there was no other way. Unfortunately there was nothing more the agency could provide to her. The last time I saw her, she still hoped that one day she would find her parents and siblings and return to school. She still hoped.

Ngozi’s story is common to many women and children around the globe and here in our very own communities.  I hope reading her story has made you think and want to take action. For more information and ways you can make a difference, go to: http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/index.shtml

The first step in building a society free from domestic abuse and violence is to take action rather than step back. Speak out against violence happening in your community.

The Sweet Scent of Giving

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The Gardenia flower is a flowering bush within the coffee family. The evergreen plants can grow into trees as high as six feet in the right environment. Their leaves grow in a particular windmill pattern. In the center of the sails, is a fragrant bloom with sensitive petals. Gardenias are my most favorite flower. Their leather like leaves yielding to delicate petals. The scent of a tree in bloom fills the area beckoning admirers.

Gardenia trees surround a property in East Texas where generations of our family are laid to rest. The dense humidity of the South make it an ideal climate. Many years ago, my great granddaddy had the fortune and good sense to purchase a section of land within the Rosevine Cemetary. This is where he and great grandma lay overseeing uncles, great aunts, a few cousins, my father and most recently, my little sister.

On this day two years ago, my sister was murdered. After several months of questions, sadness, frustration and even fear, we learned the identity of the person who took Deborah from us. It is a twisted, confusing tale of a middle aged man, a complete stranger to my sister, who offered her a ride that ended in multiple gunshots to the back of her head on the side of a country road in Palestine, TX.

Before learning the details and knowing who took her life, our family made a decision. While not all agreed, our mother, my older sister and myself chose not to seek the death penalty. It isn’t something you ever truly think about. Sure, the debate comes up at election time. However when your child or sister has been taken and her life stolen while she is on her knees in the dirt, you are forced to truly think about the value of a life. Although the killer may not have a conscience, we do. In faith and in our hearts, we could not wish for another’s life to end. What would then separate us from him?

As we later learned, similar to the Tell Tale Heart, the killer- Bobby Franks, began to grow insane at the thought of his crime coming to light. He spun an odd story, complete with pretend characters to alleviate some of his guilt. Ultimately he killed himself taking his secrets with him. We will never know why he took the life of our sister and what happened in those final moments. This- not knowing- is difficult to process but I have accepted it. The Sheriff’s offices of both Anderson and Smith counties along with the Texas Rangers were relentless in their efforts to solve the murder. Although they feel justice will never truly be served, they were diligent. They continued the case even after the killer committed suicide and did not rest until the grand jury agreed with their findings. There is not any doubt about the who in this case. The why will never be known.

Upon learning of my sister’s death, I fell to my knees, crying out. That emotion once again fills my heart as I type. A rush of thoughts and what ifs, profound sadness, confusion and anger. Then I made a choice.

The only way I know to fill the spaces of sadness and despair from losing my sister is to give. Give of myself. Give love. She had many demons and I will not allow that darkness to continue its triumph over our family. Some may laugh or take this thought lightly; the thought of doing good works. I’ve been called a do-gooder (as if that’s a bad thing) or goodie-goodie. Laugh if you will but know this. These actions are with a strong desire to fight against hate, to combat evil. You cannot see and experience what my sisters and I have and not be changed. The choice on how it will change is within each of us. So today, I will give. I will punch Evil in the face and kick Hate’s ugly teeth in. They will not win, not over me or my family. Each time I give, I release a little more of the loss felt from having my sister taken from us.

It comforts me to know that Deborah is laid to rest, surrounded by family and by Gardenias with their pure, perfumed petals. In the Summer, with their sweet scent filling the air around her grave, I will inhale…holding my breath just to keep that sweetness inside a little longer. ❤