Anna.

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I want to introduce you to someone. Her name is Anna. I feel like I talk about her all the time. Sometimes tho, I think I’m mostly talking about her to myself, in my heart and in my head. Anna is phenomenal. She is the reason that The Joy Collective was even started. She is the one who God first led me to. She’s a widow and that level of loss is something we, unfortunately, share in common.

And yet.

(And yet. I love those two words. They contain entire worlds of possibilities.)

Anna has become a beacon of hope to me. Maybe I’m something of the same to her. I don’t pretend to know that is true, but I do believe in the way God pairs us with people. I do believe the light I see in her smile and in her eyes whenever we are reunited. I believe it because seeing her always causes the same light to radiate from me.  I believe in the way God loves us so deeply, so uniquely that, in answering one prayer, he often answers a thousand. He connects us in ways that are too simple and simultaneously too complex for us to even fathom.

Less than a year ago Anna was almost too broken to work after the devastating and traumatic loss of her husband. I was only about 6 months ahead of her in experiencing that same sort of loss. By the time I met Anna, I had taken a “first step” out of my grief and into Africa. I was feeling a sense of happiness for the first time since my beloved’s passing. But I was still just at the precarious outer edges of of that happiness. My sight, at times, had a sparkling quality to it. A diamond, shimmering sort of light that somehow promised something good to come out of that heavy mountain of loss. This new feeling touched everything, even my soul. It felt delicate, ice thin. But I walked towards it anyway. Then there was this simple invitation to sit with another widow who was struggling. The mountain somehow folding us together and, without hesitation, I said: Yes.

When it was finally time to return home, I spent the eight hour flight from Entebbe to Amsterdam in a conversation with God, asking him, “Ok God, so now that I know what you want me to do, next I need you to tell me HOW!” I laugh as I write that. It seems like such an obvious question, but it’s also one that I must never quit asking. Although my sight was sparkly in those first days, there is also the awareness that I’ve stepped into some awfully deep waters. A place where I am quite certain I will get dragged into the undertows of an ugly dark current if I do not constantly plug into God’s plan.

One hour with a woman I hadn’t previously known, without even a common language. And yet…

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Yeah…I do believe this photo says it all. My Anna. And I am her Jessie.

I have returned to Uganda twice since that first trip. We have come SO FAR. One of the most important reasons for my visit was to check on the widows we are working with and the progress of their gardens. I was fully expecting to find at least some level of failure. Not because of them…but because there had been difficulties and challenges, as there often are in Africa. Let’s just say that I was SHOCKED when this is what I saw upon coming into the village.

I saw ABUNDANCE, RESILIENCE, DEDICATION. Anna, the woman I had met less than a year ago took her newfound knowledge and variety of seeds that we had gifted her with and completely reinvented her life. Together, we’ve taken death and are turning it into life. Just as Jesus did for us. I visited the homes of widow after widow, all of our Joy Collective members, and was amazed by the tenacity of our circle of women.

Anna has been hired on as our first Joy Collective Field Manager. It shouldn’t surprise me that she has such natural leadership skills and a profound gift for gardening. It is no mistake that God led me to this woman. I love the way it feels to not be needed on a constant basis in the village–of course, I love being there(!)–but I also love seeing these women take the initiative to create success by their own efforts. As Field Manager, Anna will check in on our members to see how things are going. What is working well? What are the challenges? How can we come up with solutions? Do any members need help due to sickness? Did a member discover something helpful to teach the others? Since most of our widows do not have phones, Anna is also our point of connection in the village. Each one of our members is such a beautiful and vital piece of the puzzle. It has been amazing to watch this program grow in such a short amount of time. And Anna…she is living proof of what is possible.

We’re doing this together. This thing called living. We’ve been given a handful of seeds from the broken pieces and, you know…it pulls me forward…this curiosity to see what might grow.

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I don’t want this blog to become a place to ask for money, but the truth is that we can’t do it alone. We need your help to get this dream off the ground. Please consider making an investment in us. I do believe that it will inspire you a million times over! Donate here.
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Saturated.

At 3am I get out of bed and begin writing. One dog is snoring. There is a cup of strong black coffee to my left. After a long flight and a mid-night arrival home just yesterday, I feel rested. Very rested. I don’t feel jet-lagged in the usual sense, but apparently my heart and body still think I’m in Africa. I’m ok with that. I’m going to continue pretending that is so as long as possible. I accomplished a vast amount in the past month and I want to continue bringing out the goodness I’m finding in those accomplishments. It feels like a flower, unfurling. I don’t want to stunt this great revealing of what is to come. I attempt to get out of my own way and let the energy of this project and life-building take on its own rhythms. I’ve begun to see the world in terms of growing things. In vivid detail, we too are among this ongoing, miraculous cultivation of being. Being. Yes, I like that term. It includes a lot.

At 4am I chef up a delicious stir-fry. Purple cabbage, broccoli, mushrooms, spring onions and dark greens. I’m obsessing over an idea that came to me yesterday: a beautiful way of treating our guests that might also transfer over into all we do locally, too. I’m excited about the way things are going, in directions that I would have never previously imagined or created on my own. I feel this story being orchestrated by God. I like it that way. He’s a much more talented artist and author than me. I like the way His mind thinks. I like the way His heart feels. I like the way His eyes see things. I also like the way He surprises me. He saturates me in colors and visions that are too beautiful to contain. It’s the overabundance of  sight that forces me to live it out loud. Sometimes putting things into motion before I fully understand where it’s all leading. He’s never led me astray. There is a certain knowing and I give myself to it completely.

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The bougainvillea tree bursts with color in The Joy Collective’s gardens. Home Sweet Home. Africa, I love you. 

We are sisters. We are overcomers.

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A little over a month ago, The Joy Collective hosted our SECOND workshop with the widows we are currently working with in the Bududa District of Eastern Uganda. Soon we will be hosting our third. It’s exciting to see things literally coming to life, despite the uphill battle it’s taken to make things happen. And yet…of course things are happening. We are overcomers. That is, after all, what has brought all of us women together. We are survivors in the face of tragedy. We’ve experienced the worst heartbreaks and devastations that one might imagine and yet, even when we wanted to, we didn’t lay down to die. We didn’t give up. Not then. Not now. And not ever.

Several weeks ago, I went to my beloveds grave. I cried and prayed and was swept away by deep, dark, difficult emotions. I was simultaneously buoyed by the presence of God, a remarkable and unexplainable peace. Many times, it is God himself who offers the hand up. I was lost in my own difficulties and sadness, driving to the cemetery when, through the words of Psalm 105:1-4, I heard the Holy Spirit speak clearly, lovingly into my heart. “That’s enough now, dear heart. You can feel low forever, but you can also choose to sing praises  if you want. Watch how it changes everything.” Admittedly, I am adding words where I was given a knowing made of something that transcends language. In that moment, I saw and felt a lightness of spirit, sunlight and color. I saw and felt all of us widows in the mountains of eastern Uganda smiling and laughing and building something great together. I knew in that moment what choice I was going to make. Praises.

I’m generally reading about 20 books at the same time. I like being guided to the book that is most beneficial to me at that particular time. Lately, I’ve been drawn to a book by Margaret J. Wheatley, So Far From Home: Lost and Found In Our Brave New World. She digs deep and gets real in her acknowledgement of both the despair and joy that often accompanies the brave work of mapmaking through the landscapes of troubled times. She writes about being a warrior for the human spirit.

I look at the photos from our most recent workshop and am overcome by the beauty of these women. This isn’t a romanticized version of beauty tho. Quite the opposite really. It’s a beauty that’s hard won. It’s a beauty born of ashes. I find it nothing short of amazing that these women have somehow, so thoroughly, become a part of my life. I’ve been observing what has brought us together and how that togetherness is being formed, shifted and formed again. I feel so strongly that God has something specific in mind and He is taking care to sort out every last detail. We’ve been put through a pruning and strengthening process. I’ve never before had such strong faith in something so tenuous.

Wheatley writes in depth about a notion that she calls emergence. According to Wheatley,

“Emergence is how life changes, never from just a single cause, but from a complexity of many causes and parts interacting.”

In other words, nothing changes just one thing at a time because eventually, “as separate elements start to connect with one another, emergence begins. Individual actions that were insignificant start to have new consequences because they are interconnected.” Emergence is the opposite of reductionism. Western culture loves reductionism. It’s easy to measure. You can create a straightforward plan of action and then measure the results. But people aren’t math equations. People are complicated. We’re complicated and life is messy.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the notion of emergence.

Working with Emergence
“As strange as this may seem to our reductionist minds, emergence is an everyday experience. Anytime we cook or bake something using more than a single ingredient, we are relying on emergence for flavor. The separate ingredients of eggs, flour, butter, and chocolate never predict the deliciousness of a chocolate chip cookie. And anyone who’s been in a choir or band knows the reliable thrill of emergence. Separate voices and instruments come together create something that didn’t, that couldn’t, exist had people not joined together.” ~M. Wheatley

Oh my gosh…sink your teeth into that one. And then let’s take it a little further…

“Emergence demands a different relationship with life, where we’re curious, open, alert. The only thing we can predict is that life will surprise us. We can’t see what is coming until it arrives, and once something has emerged, we have to work with what is. We have to be flexible and willing to adapt–we can’t keep pushing ahead, blustering on with our now outdated plans and dreams. And it doesn’t help to deny what has emerged. We need to be present and willing to accept this new reality. This is what it truly means to work with emergence.” ~M. Wheatley

Just for the record, I’m not interested in over-intellectualizing the human experience. Life is the ultimate creative experience and so it seems wise to leave room to be led by something more amazing than our minds are able to plan for.


“You think because two and two are four that you understand. But you must also understand and.”


Somehow all of this began with the most devastating subtraction: death.  The role of despair has played itself out in our lives. And. We have now somehow created, together, this option of moving forward in praises over the additions. In this sisterhood of widows, a new design has already begun to emerge. It’s made of hope and happiness, even under a hot African sun. We are in the middle of the greatest alchemic experiment we might ever step into: emergence from the dark night. And. Stronger and more confident (to paraphrase Wheatley), having passed through the refiner’s fire, we can trust ourselves to deal with whatever life challenges us with next.

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I AM
the daughter
of a king who
is not moved
by the world
for my God
is with me &
goes before me
I do not fear
because I am
HIS.

Photo credit: Harriet Nakabaale of Camp Green Uganda