Engaging the Culture Readers' Essays
IN SEPTEMBER 2001, Response invited readers to submit essays that included their perspectives about what it means to "engage the culture" with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It has been a pleasure for the Response editorial staff to read your submissions. Since our invitation came so close on the heels of September 11, several essays dealt specifically with the terrible events of that day. Others related current experiences, treasured memories and individual passions. All of the essays affirmed that Seattle Pacific University is indeed equipping people who change the world for good.
Alumna Kristy Layton wrote an essay for Response based on her
experience as a nurse on the Mercy Ship A/V Anastasia. One of her joys is working
with the children of West Africa, such as this young patient.
Included here are five reader essays selected by the Response staff. Each reflects a very personal view of the role of faith in troubled times.
Thanks to all who participated by sending in their story. We plan to print more reader essays on various topics in future issues.
The Sixth Finger of Courage
By Kristy Layton '97
Mercy Ships — M/V Anastasis
Somewhere off the coast of Sierra Leone
"Be pleased yet once again to come down and breathe a soul into the newly formed, fragile film of matter with which this day the world is to be freshly clothed."
— Teilhard de Chardin
During the four years I've worked on the hospital ship M/V Anastasis in West Africa, I've discovered what a "fragile film of matter" looks like. I've learned to grab hold of certain days like a child chasing lightning bugs and watch them glow in my hand.
One Sunday evening, not long ago, I felt another flutter in my hand. As I worked a quiet shift on our surgical ward for patients recovering from maxillo-facial, orthopedic, plastic and ophthalmic surgeries, Teresa, a crew member, came into the ward near tears. She described walking in town, just outside the port, when a woman approached for help. "This woman lowered her scarf," she said, "and ... Kristy ... I almost threw up!"
The bottom half of the woman's face was gone. Her right lower lip was "hanging off." Her left cheek was a smelly, pus-filled hole. "She said the rebels cut her face with razors," Teresa said. "I know the surgery schedule is full, but we can't just leave her like this."
Teresa's voice quivered. "I'll do whatever it takes to help her," she continued. "If we can't do anything, I'll take her to a local hospital and pay for everything. Her name is Isata. She came all the way from the provinces."
Sierra Leone is a beautiful country. With rich natural resources and pristine beauty, it was once called "The Jewel of West Africa." But a brutal 10-year civil war in the 1990s left the small nation reeling from poverty, trauma and in desperate need of reconciliation.
The war was now over. But rebels — mostly boys ages 8-24 — terrorized Sierra Leone's citizens: They hacked off limbs with dull machetes, burned people alive in front of their families, raped old women and young girls, and kidnapped children for sex slaves and cocaine-enhanced child-soldiers. Now, however, most had been disarmed.
The Anastasis chose Sierra Leone for its four-month outreach particularly because of this history. One of three Mercy Ships, the Anastasis provides free medical, dental, educational and development services in developing nations around the world. Its 350 volunteers from 30 nations pay a monthly fee to work on board. As a crew, we prepared ourselves for what we would encounter in Sierra Leone. The poorest nation in the world, Sierra Leone offers citizens a healthy life expectancy (if infancy is survived) of less than 26 years. I am an old woman here, and I just turned 27.
As Teresa spoke, my list of reasons why we couldn't help this woman grew: We are full; we cannot risk a major infection spreading to our skin graft patients; our nurses are burned out; we don't have enough time left in Freetown to start any major surgeries; we can't just take people off the streets and treat them as if we were an ER. We can't ... We can't ... We can't ... My mouth formed the word "no," but I saw tears spilling out Teresa's eyes.
The night before, my tears spilled for another patient: Mariama, a premature baby who lived all but one of her 21 days of life with us. Mariama had trisomy 13, a combination of congenital deformities including a wide cleft lip and palate, heart defects and six fingers on each hand. Even in the developed world, most children with trisomy 13 don't live beyond a week. Recognizing her declining condition, our medical team met and concluded that our most loving intervention was to support Mariama's mother as she prepared for her baby's death. As one of our surgeons said, "God brings patients to us for a reason, even if it isn't for a physical healing."
As I had kissed Mariama goodbye on my last shift with her, I moved my index finger inside her grip. I know why trisomy 13 kids are born with six fingers, I thought. Their grip on life needs the extra finger of strength. Now, maybe Isata was one of these God-ordained patients. I changed my "no" to a nod.
It has been my experience that just when I think I've seen it all, I am a prime target to be "walloped for 30 seconds at a time," as Annie Dillard once put it. I am, indeed, walloped when I see and smell and smile at Isata. She is 45 years old, rail thin (weighing 30 kilos), with beautifully bright eyes. Her clothes are filthy. I shake hands, introduce myself and rub my fingers affectionately through her grandson's brillo-pad hair. I ask Isata to lower her scarf and wish that I could be anywhere but here. I want to run. Instead, I continue my eye contact with her.
Her face was like raw hamburger meat, rotting yellow-white-green, spilling out of her mouth. The smell came in waves, and Isata had nothing to keep saliva from dripping out of her mouth. "The rebels captured me," she said. "They cut me with razor blades." Her speech is surprisingly clear for a woman with no mouth.
A retreating rebel army blew through Isata's village in the Kono District, she said. They killed and maimed many people, and cut her face. "I fled to the bush and put traditional medicines on my wound," she said. "And then this happened."
"How long ago was this?" I asked, knowing most rebels had been disarmed since the ship came to Sierra Leone.
"December," replied Isata.
My heart sank. What was I doing in December? Preparing for Christmas, working long hours, complaining about the lack of snow, wishing I had a fireplace and a real Christmas tree. I was grumbling, missing family and friends, and entirely self-absorbed. I knew, as Teresa had, we could not leave Isata like this.
We admitted Isata to the ward. I weighed her, took a brief history, and gave her soap and a towel for a shower. Translators washed her clothes in a hefty amount of bleach. I found high-protein formula and encouraged Isata to drink as much as possible. We started her on antibiotics, pain medication and twice-daily dressing changes with Betadine, diluted vinegar, bleach and hydrogen peroxide. Isata flinched only when the solution touched the open flesh. I apologized repeatedly for the pain it caused. "I don't mind," she replied. "I will do anything to get well."
The most painful part for her was the flap of lip that hung from her chin. As I gingerly held her flapping lip in my fingers, a profound thought dawned: Not vomiting may be my ministry. I once heard a simple and mighty definition for that grossly overused word: "Ministry is a non-anxious presence."
Not everyone can be an evangelist. I feel waves of nausea if I am asked to pray in public. Some people can organize soccer matches with street kids or serve battered women. I can irrigate a wound oozing with enterobacter while smiling and talking about grandkids and dinner. Nurses are about the work of Christ — cleaning up diarrhea or holding the sweaty hand of a woman dry-heaving after anesthesia. I have the spiritual gift of suppressing my gag reflex.
Isata told me maggots were inside her wound, making her itch. I didn't see any, but it wouldn't be the first time I've encountered them. Though they sound revolting, maggots are surprisingly beneficial for a wound like Isata's. They naturally debride dead tissue and help wounds heal. I told Isata it's "no big deal," but secretly wondered if I would be so strong. If maggots lived in my chin, if I were cut by razors, starving and facing a 10-day hike into unfriendly territory, would I make it? I don't think I have what it takes.
My courage measures far less than Isata's. My perseverance measures far less than Mariama's six fingers. I could only hold this brave woman's hand, touch that tiny child's cheek and learn from them.
A cancellation in the surgery schedule allowed us an opportunity to clean and investigate Isata's face. She was barely under anesthesia when our surgeons agreed she had extensive squamous cell carcinoma — a skin cancer that had almost certainly metastasized throughout her body. They removed a small piece of tissue for biopsy, excised a portion of lip to reduce her pain, and informed those involved with Isata's care that medically speaking, we could not do any more.
Isata later admitted she knew she had a tumor but thought the story of the rebels cutting her increased her chances of receiving help. Sierra Leoneans believe that nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are more interested in helping victims of war than helping victims of poverty. She probably did meet rebels somewhere who may have cut her with razors, but certainly the destruction left by the rebels made it impossible to get medical help in Kono. And she didn't understand that compassion isn't based on how tragic a story sounds. It is based on an understanding of our shared humanity and suffering.
Isata's condition was much too advanced for any effective treatment, but we gave her three months of pain relief, a case of nutritional drinks and money for transportation back to Kono. And, as suddenly as she entered our lives, she was gone.
Isata, like baby Mariama, grips life with the perseverance of six fingers. She walked for 10 days with little food or money. She found transportation to Freetown. She endured stares and glares from other passengers crammed in a bus. She mopped up her own drool with a rag and endured painful dressing changes.
The night Isata came to the ship, like many nights before, I cried quietly in my bed. I cry when I am walloped by the God of the suffering, and I cry when I find myself near the God who breathes life into the "newly formed, fragile film of matter." I cry when these lightening bugs glow brightly in my hand.
Kristy Layton '97 has worked on the Mercy Ship M/V Anastsis since she graduated from SPU with a B.S. degree in nursing. She often writes for nursing journals and other publications about her experiences in West Africa. You can visit the Mercy Ships Web site at www.mercyships.org or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From There to Here
By Ruth Beechick '46
We were the Pearl Harbor generation. My family and I lived in a countryside area called Foster, south of Seattle, and I was a 16-year-old high school senior when my family sat in front of the radio that Sunday afternoon in December 1941. President Roosevelt explained the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and called for Congress to convene on Monday to declare war.
Soon we had rationing stamps for sugar and butter — and for other commodities as well. People who owned a car also had to cope with rationed gas. And every evening my family checked that blackout shades were in place.
Several graduates of Seattle Pacific College had been teaching my friends and me at Foster Grade School and High School from sixth grade on. Mr. Harold Best, a 1938 SPC graduate, taught music, both in school and in our country church, Foster Presbyterian. Mr. Wesley Crum, of the SPC Class of 1936, taught math and science.
Mr. Crum injured his hand in our school chemistry lab, so he could not join the military that spring. Instead, he became principal while our principal went off to war. But Mr. Best did go off to war, and many classmates joined him after graduating. Some never came back. We celebrated an early graduation ceremony for two Japanese students in our class who had to move to a relocation camp in the Midwest.
Hardly anyone who grew up in rural Foster during the Depression planned to go to college after high school. But Mr. Crum and Mr. Best changed that for several of us. Due to them, three in our class enrolled at Seattle Pacific: Audre Fox, Florence Newton and me. Mr. Best had introduced us to Professor Schoenhals at a music contest, and on registration day at SPC, he saw that we enrolled as music majors. One evening during orientation week, the faculty played outdoor games with the new students at twilight. Afterward, Audre said, “Did you notice how many of the men are named Dean?”
We soon caught on to the college lingo and, more importantly, learned to strengthen our faith and witness. More Foster students came to Seattle Pacific in the following years. One of them, Florence’s brother, Hubert Newton, could preach, and with a vocal trio of us three Foster girls, we made a “Gospel team” to represent SPC. Later came many-talented Dorce Myron. We added her and her violin to the Gospel team. We all sang in the college a capella choir, and to this day, it is the best choir I have ever heard.
I didn’t appreciate at the time how historic that period at Seattle Pacific was. Just recently, a dinner guest, not knowing my background, remarked how good SPC was, particularly in the 1940s and particularly in music. But I know how much the experience has done for my life.
Dorce took her talents to Thailand as a missionary wife. Audre taught at Air Force schools in Germany for many years. I taught in Alaska, and Florence became a pastor’s wife. Jerry Newton, who came to SPC after the war, taught on its faculty. Some of our own children and friends followed.
Now, on that Tuesday morning 60 years later, our families sat in front of television sets and watched the new Pearl Harbor, New York City’s World Trade Center. It is good to know that SPU is still on the job. It is sending out well-prepared graduates to spread their Christian influence throughout this new Pearl Harbor generation, as it did during the first Pearl Harbor generation.
Ruth Greene Beechick taught at the elementary, junior high and college levels. She also spent approximately 13 years writing curriculum, and later wrote books for home-schoolers, often speaking at their conventions. She is now retired and doing a little writing. She lives in the Rocky Mountains near Golden, Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Art and the Christian Gospel
by Karl Erickson '91
Believers are frequently identified by society at large as unsophisticated and leaning towards censorship of the arts, unequipped to engage modern culture. While some Christians may fail to understand or value artistic creations (granted, there is not always substance there to value), it is my opinion that most are attempting to understand the arts, but are struggling to reconcile their faith with what they know of the artistic world.
In a culture where a broad liberal arts education is often seen as a waste, there is a void in our art and music world. Art in years past was an integral part of our church services, our daily lives — reminding us what it meant to be men and women in relationship with God and pointing to his glory. In centuries past, music and the visual arts were a great strength of the Christian Church. Now, many seem inclined to turn their backs upon this tradition and replace it with shallow words and choruses, losing much of the ancient glory of Christian artistic expression and becoming more and more like ordinary entertainment.
I grew up engrossed by reading the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, fascinated with the power of words and their ability to clearly convey thoughts, ideas, emotions, imagery and other elements of the human condition. As a student in the late 1980s at Seattle Pacific University, I learned that an artist could evoke just as powerfully with paints and a canvas. When I met my future wife at SPU, I also had my first real introduction to a fine artist, John Collier, her father. I recall walking through his Vashon Island studio one bright spring morning and gazing at a few of his newest paintings. I was stunned at what he had accomplished. The painting of a lone ice skater stands out vividly in my mind. Its vibrant colors and serene lake setting made the experience of its viewing more akin to gazing through a window than standing in front of a still painting.
More importantly, however, I began to realize how much art could inspire and draw people closer to God and his creation. I saw how, in the sanctuary, fine art can evoke wonder and awe, setting the spiritual tone to one of deep reverence.
Art calls us to worship; it also empowers us to engage our culture with the gospel. Given the present world crisis, I believe Christians have a responsibility to address the moral issues facing us in this troubling time. The words of Christian writers and theologians from C.S. Lewis to Dietrich Bonhoeffer still give us much to consider and discuss. From Michelangelo to Handel, our Christian heritage is also replete with the finest artists and composers who have ever lived. This rich Christian perspective plays a vital role within our culture. It is our responsibility to ensure that this legacy endures and continues.
Christians are aware that there is more to life than what simply meets the eye, and that the spiritual world is just as real as the earth they are standing upon. The Christian must focus and hold on to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” That is the only way we can maintain our clear vision and grip on the eternal priorities facing us.
Karl Erickson ’91 has worked for the Oregon State Department of Revenue for five years. He is currently an enforcement agent in Oregon’s new Tobacco Tax Task Force. He writes in his “very spare” time and lives in Salem, Oregon, with his wife, Kimberly, their 9-year-old daughter, 4-year-old son and a puppy. They attend St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salem. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Memory of My Daughter
By Marion Vedell '81
Cultural interaction was as natural to my daughter as singing, listening to a symphony, swimming or hiking.
In a college term paper titled “Christian Scholar Servant,” she described her experiences as a teenager working for the Migrant-Indian Coalition. “I helped care for the babies and toddlers of Mexican workers while the parents and older children harvested cherries. The child care was difficult work. … Sometimes we cared for over 100 children. The children were often sick, and we aides were not immune to their illnesses. One summer several of us aides got hepatitis. It took me six weeks to recover. Even after that illness, I cared for the children again the next summer.”
The professor wrote in the margin, “You know what being a servant really means.”
At Seattle Pacific University, a classmate from Japan handed my daughter a letter on the final day of class one Spring Quarter. “I want to tell you how much I was happy to be able to sit beside you in class,” it read. “You were the first American who talked with me really friendly. I have been in America for two years but I had not been able to get any real American friends so far. … It was like a wall between American people and me. Your hospitality and sincere feelings made me so happy. If you have some chance to talk with the people who come from foreign countries, like me, give them your nice friendship which is the same what you gave me.”
After graduating in 1984 with a degree in accounting, my daughter took a position as international coordinator for a worldwide air express agency. She was fluent in German and able to speak with her European counterparts in their language.
But a long-sensed call to missions was ever present with her. In 1988, she accepted an invitation to serve as financial administrator for the East Africa division of a German medical mission. She moved to Nairobi, Kenya.
Soon she wrote home about joining a choir. “I have joined the Nairobi Music Society,” she wrote. “We are a group of musicians from Kenya and from all over the world. We perform with the Nairobi Orchestra. On Sundays, I worship at the Uhuru Highway Lutheran Church. I have been warmly welcomed into the fellowship.”
She was responsible for the financial administration of 200 projects in nine African countries — eye clinics, job training centers and schools for the blind, deaf and physically handicapped. In addition, she traveled to project sites and taught local workers about bookkeeping and fiscal accountability.
At the end of her four years of service, she received a certificate of appreciation “for sharing Christ’s love in action with the poorest of the poor in East Africa.” Later, an article in a mission publication added, “She was highly regarded by her colleagues because of her intense personal commitment to her work and especially because of her sensitivity regarding the African mentality and African problems.”
My daughter, Andrea Vedell Agol, was fatally shot during a robbery in an open-air market in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 6, 1992, two weeks before she would have completed her four-year term of service in East Africa. Yet countless lives were enriched by her friendship, her service and her love. Blessed be her memory!
Marion Vedell ’81, former SPU staff member, served for nine years as the administrative manager of Ministry to the Aged, a Boise, Idaho, ecumenical nonprofit organization. After her husband, C. Emerson Vedell, retired from a Lutheran pastorate, they moved to Bothell, Washington, where they now enjoy the Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony, world travel and their family, including daughter Anita, Andrea’s younger sister. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Out From Behind Sorrow
By Jo Shafer
In the days following that beautiful and tragic morning of September 11, I wished I could have made stacks of sandwiches and delivered them to the rescue workers in New York. But I live too far away. Instead, I baked loaves of challah and a double batch of onion rolls to deliver, still hot from the oven and wrapped in linen tea towels, to my own priests absorbed in comforting the confused, hurting and angry.
Since that horrible day shattered our illusions of living in an insulated nation, most of us have recovered some degree of equilibrium and reestablished some normalcy in our lives. Wrenching grief has given way to a quiet sorrow. For others, however, anger remains like a metallic taste in the mouth.
“I clasp the newspaper to my heart like a Bible,” writes Macrina Wiederkehr in A Tree Full of Angels. “I weep over the tragedy of human life … my dear broken world.” Heartbroken as she was when writing in 1988, we search still for answers more than a dozen years later.
Of course, the story of a broken world did not begin with a heartbroken nation. Nor did it begin when we as Americans assumed an almost arrogant invincibility and supposed ourselves immune to horrors such as terrorism. It began long before there was an America, when the human species, made in its Creator’s beautiful image, succumbed to Satan’s wiles and put itself above God.
Today in America, many of us have ignored Third World poverty and injustice. Our affluent society tends to turn a blind eye to oppressive cultural or political regimes half a world away. In that blindness, we overlook the unjust world systems that lead to religious fanaticism such as we witnessed on September 11. Why, we ask, should we be expected to address world injustices simply because we’re Americans? Because, as Jesus Christ said, much is expected of those to whom much is given.
When we can’t see any answers in our confusion, sorrow and anger after September 11, faith gives us the courage to persevere, to rededicate ourselves as channels of peace, united as Jews, Christians and Muslims in a common work of healing. As we bear our own loss with dignity and grace, can we continue to ignore the world’s pain? Can we not enter into it and help bring healing?
The day after the terrorist attacks, I saw a man in blue jeans and a plaid shirt, head bowed under a large straw hat, strolling along the side of a quiet road in the afternoon sun. In a front yard hedged by roses, a young girl with long golden hair clapped her hands and skipped back and forth, singing a wordless tune to herself. In a supermarket aisle, two mothers stopped to chuckle over the antics of their preschoolers playing at their feet. For one shining moment, it was almost — but not quite — like a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood again.
We have discovered, however, that the power to unite is stronger than the power to divide. We became a nation brought to its knees, not in humiliation as the terrorists had intended, but in humility and faith and hope.
Jo Shafer is the mother of two SPU graduates, James Shafer ’97 and Elizabeth Shafer Smith ’00. An essayist, poet and photojournalist, Shafer has been published in literary journals and in an anthology. She was a reporter for the Yakima Herald-Republic for more than 10 years and, most recently, copy editor of Central Washington Catholic. She teaches Bible studies at St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima, Washington, where she and her husband live. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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