Monday, July 30, 2007

summer reading list

I decided to do the summer reading program at the library, partly in hopes of winning an ipod, and partly because I would have read most of these books anyway. I had to push a little to read 10 books in between May 21 and July 28 (each book log - each entry for the ipod drawing - had to have five books on it) but I managed to finish the last one Thursday night. For my book logs I only had to list the books and whether I would recommend them (I recommended all but one), but you all get the extended version ...
  • The Light on the Island by Helene Glidden. This is my mom's favorite book from her growing-up years; it was out of print for ages but she finally got a copy a few months ago. She kindly lent it to me when I was last in Pennsylvania and I finished the book shortly after returning to the Bend. It's about a girl whose family lives on an island off the coast of Oregon - her father is the lighthouse keeper - no one else lives on the island but her family (well except this one guy ... just read it...). The book is mostly picaresque and the stories in it are fascinating - I could immediately see why they stayed in my mom's head and heart for so long - Glidden tells them so well that they start to feel like your own family memories.
  • Walden Two by B.F. Skinner. A reread from AP Psychology in high school. Interesting portrait of a fictional "utopian" community (or commune) and some intriguing ideas on freedom and control. A good read, not necessarily something to get excited about and try to copy in real life ...
  • Chocolate Beach was so not worth it that I don't even feel like searching for the author's name. This was in the "Christian women's fiction" category at the library, which is usually light, fun, harmless stuff with some worthwhile ideas scattered through - but this one harmed my brain and there was absolutely nothing worthwhile about it. Unless I win the ipod.
  • The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu was quality literature and washed my brain out after reading that Chocolate Beach thing. About an African immigrant in Washington, D.C. Sad but absolutely beautiful.
  • A Room With a View by E.M. Forster was scathingly funny. Hooray for classics :)
  • Emma by Jane Austen. Hadn't read it since high school, what fun it was to read it again! Ever since a college essay on Pride and Prejudice I've taken special notice, when reading Austen, of the sneaky ways that she describes her characters - if you read closely enough you can tell right away what kind of person the character will turn out to be.
  • Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. A small novel about a woman's life in India as the times change and she is left behind. Depressed me more than The Grapes of Wrath, which however is an all-time favorite ... if you can handle the sadness, it's a good read.
  • The Preacher's Daughter by Beverly Lewis. I have a weakness for Lewis' novels, which are all about Amish women ... in every one of them, somebody becomes Amish or leaves the Amish for the Mennonite church because they've come to know the Lord. I am only half-joking, though, when I refer to these books as "Amish romance novels."
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness and The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, both by Alexander McCall Smith, from the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Fun and easy reads, but still pretty well-written stories with very decent characters. I was intro'd to this series by Pat R. who had our WG celebrate her birthday by watching a travel video about Botswana.
So what have you read this summer?

Friday, July 27, 2007

the Word of the Lord

Friday afternoon, my last day in Allendale ... the work was finally done. All that stood between me and South Bend was an 18-hour drive with a bunch of teenagers, the last three hours of which would be in the formidable 15-passenger Preuss van. I was nervous about the upcoming drive, kind of brain-dead from the last two weeks of work, but quietly delighted to know that I would soon be back home living my normal life.

The afternoon and evening passed pleasantly: I watched people play Kubb and volleyball, I had dinner with Karen and Mary Beth and MB's husband and daughter, I sang loudly in an empty house while doing dishes, Hannah's lovely voice joined in my song for a bit, and I just reveled in the feeling that I was almost done and almost home. Do you see a theme here? I could not wait to go back home. I'd had some fun moments, some good conversations, got to meet a lot of great people, but the only word for the trip was hard. It had been a hard two weeks.

The evening session began with some words about taking responsibility for your own life, and then Nathan talked to us about choosing to intend to follow Jesus. (The reason for the strange language there is that the only choice we can make is in the present. I can choose to follow Jesus now. I can't choose now to follow him next Thursday - that choice comes next Thursday. But I can choose now to intend to follow Jesus the rest of my life.) We were asked to go find a quiet place alone for fifteen minutes to make that choice.

I'd made that choice a long time ago, maybe not in so many words, but I sat down at the bottom of some back porch steps just to pray for a few minutes. The Lord felt really present so I spoke directly to him. I haven't done a very good job following you these past two weeks, I told him.

You did fine, I know, I was there with you.

I know you were there but I didn't call on you enough.
You called on me a lot actually.
But I kept failing, Lord! I ought to have been more cheerful and less discouraged and a better role model for the teens. And I ought to have built more relationships with the teens and talked with them more.
You did great. You tried. And when you failed you tried again. And when you failed again you tried again. That is humanity.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

the end of my rope

A new PoP catchphrase, at least among the missionaries, is to be at "the end of your rope." They say that the end of your rope is when and where God will work - because you have nothing left but him. And they say that many times life puts us at the end of our rope, but we can also choose (through fasting, etc.) to put ourselves there.

For me, it wasn't so much the end of a rope as the top of a ladder.

This summer was the first time I was able to go to Allendale for the whole trip instead of half, and it turns out that two weeks of manual labor in Louisiana in July is harder than one. By the time the second week rolled around, I was already out of energy, physically and mentally and emotionally. But I had to keep going. Each day I got up and vowed that the heat, the mosquitoes, the smell, the difficulty of our job, and the burden of leadership were not going to get to me. We would get a lot of work done, have tons of fun while doing so, and at the end of the day, we'd be tired but happy. I would be proud of myself for being such a good crew chief. I developed a routine of praying early so that during personal prayer time (twenty minutes before beginning the work day) I could sit with a cup of coffee and a list of all the people on my crew and I would plan out the work day. That part always went really well.

It kind of went downhill from there.

Trying to get eight people to the work site on time. Sending two people back to get that one piece of equipment we always seemed to forget. Slapping at the first mosquito of the day after he'd already bit me. Finding yet another place that we missed with the primer. The never-ending battle of getting the grooved siding completely painted. Trying to paint trim with a huge, much-used brush because we just didn't have enough good brushes. Little things, but over and over, on top of exhaustion ...

It was our last day on the job. I really wanted us to finish the trim before we all left town and I kept going back and forth with myself over whether we could do it. I would start to get optimistic, then see another part of the house we'd forgotten ... it was maddening. Like unpainted pieces of trim were getting together and multiplying. Midmorning saw me up on a ladder with my paint bucket hoping no one from the ground would see I was crying with pure frustration. I got over it quickly enough and kept painting until I saw a guy from my crew walking by. "How's it going?" I called.

"Terrible," he said, bristling with anger. "I dropped my paint bucket. There's paint all over the ladder, and my hands, and ..."

The poor guy looked like he'd had it and my heart went out to him. I told him to go ahead and take a break, take a buddy and walk down the road a bit to cool off. I turned back to my painting and realized we really were not going to finish this house. There wasn't enough time and we didn't have enough energy.

With that decided, I went to take a water break. My beleaguered crew member returned from his walk. "Oh no," I said without thinking, "there's paint in your hair too ..." He looked even more dejected than before, which I hadn't thought possible. "Hey," I said spontaneously, "I'll be in solidarity with you. Go get some paint, put paint in my hair." And man, could this kid follow directions. I still have paint in my hair.

Soon about half the crew had paint in their hair, and while normally I would have gotten on the teenagers' cases for the amount of time they spent running after one another with paint, I had let go of my need to see the house finished and I was more interested in seeing the kids smile.

That was the bright spot of the work day, but my woes were not over. Just before lunch I discovered we hadn't taped correctly and a ton of our trim work was ruined. After lunch I had my own paint accident, except my white paint splashed not onto my ladder but onto the freshly painted blue house and the floor of the porch.

And that's all I have to say about that.

(tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of Sheila's Adventures in Allendale)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


I spent a lot of time with teenagers during my trip to Allendale. We had 42 people on our trip; I think seven of us were adults. I think the last time I was around so many teenagers for such an extended period of time, I was a teenager. (And because I know you're wondering - that was five years ago, almost six, OK, so that doesn't sound like much, but those are five to six pretty important years!) Honestly, I had forgotten how hard it is to be a teenager. The boys don't know how to act around the girls, the girls don't know how to act around the boys, and none of them know how to act around adults.

As for me? As an adult ... I didn't know how to act around them either. I had a lot of responsibility during this trip - driving teenagers 15 hours to Louisiana without losing them at rest stops, being a crew chief at the job site, and a lot of just being the only adult around a group of teens. I had a lot of learning and growing to do - I kinda had to learn how to be an adult. And that was hard. Trying to rein teens in when they were speaking badly of a friend; trying to actually look like I was in charge on the work site; breaking up a water fight (against the rules) and getting a snotty remark back from a teenage girl ... being an adult amidst so many teenagers was hard. Especially because I'm so short and don't even look like an adult!

But when I didn't have to exercise any "adult" authority and I had a chance just to spend casual time with the teens - it was a joy to get to know them and see them growing. A few girls were talking one day about what they wanted to do with their lives; one wants to become a nurse and open a home for unwed pregnant women. Another wants to work for NASA. Several other times I got to hear girls talk about what the People of Praise is doing and I was amazed at their passion for the Lord and his kingdom. And I got to meet a lot of hard workers. One of my absolute favorite moments of the trip was down at the paint-washing station, cleaning paintbrushes. Matt Brickweg (on staff at Allendale) was showing us how to clean the brushes correctly. He demonstrated on one side of a brush and then flipped it over for one of the teenage girls to clean the other side. She took the brush and scrubbed it and scrubbed it and would not rest til her side of the brush looked better than Matt's. All the other teens were excited to do it right too. I was surrounded by a bunch of teenagers doing their absolute best on one of the most tedious chores of the trip. Praise God.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Each day after the workday was over (and after our scheduled 12-minute showers, and unscheduled chill-out time, and a delicious dinner, thanks Colleen) we got together for the evening sessions. I have to say, after working hard all day, there were a couple evenings when I was taken back to college seminars and just could not keep my eyelids up, so my memories of those talks are hazy. But the talks that woke me up and actually kept me up into the night thinking were about citybuilding.

The Lord works in lots of different ways, and is always doing something new. What he's doing with the People of Praise right now is calling us to build cities. Specifically, we've heard a call to build 200 cities in the next 40 years. That sounds pretty funky, and I still have a hard time getting my mind around it. But basically, it's a concrete way of building God's kingdom - we want to have real places that you can walk to, places that are part of God's kingdom on Earth. I've heard it compared to Chinatown - a whole different culture and life in the middle of society.

We want our cities to be places where Jesus is king; where good housing is available to everyone; where we live purposeful life together, across boundaries of age or race of economic class; where our businesses and jobs are close to our homes; where money works (people have enough and it is spent well, and in some cases, it is held in common); where there is friendship and peace; where health care works; and where everything is beautiful and functional.

We're not necessarily talking about building a city from scratch in the middle of the prairie somewhere, although that could happen too. For now, we are building cities inside existing places. Allendale is our first "new start": we moved into the neighborhood and are simultaneously buying up unused land to build on and working for and with the neighbors who already live there. We've already transformed Yale so that you know you are in a new place when you cross Gary or Dunlap onto our block. Up in Minnesota, we've moved into Dinkytown, a college-housing area at the U of M, to build the Kingdom there and revolutionize student life. There's also work being started in Indianapolis, and some people will move to Memphis this fall.

And then there's this whole other part of the picture - "branch citybuilding." So we have missionaries whose job it is to "locate and secure new starts," but citybuilding is actually something the whole People of Praise is part of. The idea is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying - that all 3000 of us are called to do this revolutionary thing. In some ways it's not scary at all, we just have to keep doing what we've been doing - worshiping together, living in households together, having men's and women's groups and youth ministry, taking care of each other in times of transition or crisis, etc. - because that's what is going to make our cities worth living in. But the other part of branch citybuilding is that each branch - we have 20 by the way, in places all across the country - each branch is going to have to figure out how to become a city.

Portland's already started. My new friend Luke told me a lot about what's happening there while we painted together the first week in Allendale. I'd heard about it before but never from someone who's actually living there, and I was fascinated. The branch in Portland just decided on a section of the city they wanted to live in, and now there are several "hubs" of families living together within that area. A hub would be several families living in close proximity - next door or across the backyard or something - the new catch phrase is "close enough to bring a pot of hot soup over for dinner." Life together is intense and intentional. Families even went to look at each house all together before one family would buy their house, because everyone needed to agree it was what would work for life together. Amazing.

What kept me up late at night (other than the coffee I had after Lord's Day dinner, which was my first caffeine in a week) was wondering what we're doing in the South Bend branch to build a city in South Bend. My mind was racing with possibilities and questions and I couldn't wait to get back and start talking to people. Now that I'm back I don't quite know where to start, though ...

I do know that I am passionate about branch citybuilding, and nothing gets me on my soapbox faster than hearing how left-out people feel when we talk about missionaries and new starts. Maybe because I have so often felt that way too. But ... the missionaries are doing amazing work, but when it comes down to it, our regular life is pretty amazing too. It's the Lord's work and we need to keep doing it. Raising families, renewing our churches, being Christ to our coworkers and neighbors and friends ... one college student from my Allendale team is dedicated to her younger brothers and sisters in her branch. She's the youngest committed member of the branch and she knows the teenagers (and younger) need to have her around, to see what it is to be a young person in love with the Lord and committed to Christian life together. That is where the Lord is, just as much as he is in Allendale and Dinkytown.

We just need to pull it all together ...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Allendale, part 1 of 5

Eleven days in Allendale, plus two full days driving, thirteen days. From leaving South Bend to coming back last night at midnight, it was actually three hundred and twenty-two hours, and almost every one of those hours was an experience unto itself, so actually you're lucky that I'm only taking five posts to tell you all about it. I've planned it out too, here's a preview of topics to be covered:

1. Intro
2. Citybuilding
3. Teenagers
4. The End of My Rope
5. The Word of the Lord

So hang in there with me. Now, without further ado, your introduction ...

Allendale is a downtrodden neighborhood in Shreveport, LA, where the People of Praise has been working for the past five years. We have a number of people living there year-round - a men's house, a women's house, and a retired married couple - and they are claiming that neighborhood for Christ. They live life in common with one another, as the early Christians did, and seek to draw more people into the kingdom of God. They pray with people for healing, they talk to people about Jesus, they call people on to live better lives, and they extend the love and friendship of Christ to everyone they meet.

In the summer, the rest of us get to join in their work. Since the crucial parts of their work involve long-term relationships with people in the neighborhood, what we can help with is mostly the physical labor part. Over the past five years we have built six houses and done fix-it projects in a number of neighbors' houses. The picture to the left here is Yale Ave., "on campus", where our houses are. What I like about Yale is that it simultaneously is a departure from the rest of the neighborhood - no trash in the yard, the houses are well-kept, etc. - and also blends in with the neighborhood, unlike the gated apartment complex down the road a bit, which is better housing than most of Allendale but sticks out like a sore thumb. Yale Ave. shows Allendale that it can change for the better and still be Allendale.

So this summer there was some work to be done on campus and also at a business PoP runs down there, WDMO (Windows, Doors, and More Outlet, or "widmo"). But most of us were sent out each day to neighbors' houses. Here's how the day went: breakfast at 6 AM, group morning prayer at 6:45, personal prayer time at 7:05, workday starts at 7:30. A list is posted outside one house to show who's on what crew and where they're going - you might not be on the same crew every day. There's all kinds of work to be done - in addition to Yale and WDMO, our team refinished a kitchen and a bathroom and painted two houses. Other teams in other years have propped up people's sagging porch roofs, hung new doors, and built wheelchair ramps. You might not have any experience in the work you're assigned to, but we all just have to learn.

Sometimes the work is gross. The first two days of this trip, I worked on this woman's kitchen cabinets. She wanted them refinished so we had to sand them down but we had to get the grease off first so I ended up spending long hours with dish soap, a green scrubby, and a paint scraper to get the cabinet doors ready for sanding. I had grease under my fingernails for days. But that really wasn't so bad. Grease happens, right? The other job I worked at was much harder. Trash and beer cans strewn everywhere, rotting food in the back yard, a pervasive sewer smell ... the first time you go to Allendale you wonder if it's worth it to do these fix-its when people's houses are still gross and/or falling apart. Having been there three times now, I'm past that particular issue - we desire to love them as Christ by meeting the needs that they want met - but this house certainly was difficult. One girl on my crew almost threw up one day from the smell. And we had a hard time getting work done in the backyard because nobody wanted to be near the corner with the rotting food and the flies.

But we just kept going.

The work is usually just hard too. In the heat and humidity of this past week, I was dripping sweat by 8 AM. My wrists were sore from painting, my ankles were aching from standing on ladders, my shoulders hurt from the wheelbarrow, which at times contained ten gallons of paint and a 5-gallon cooler of water. My right shoulder was bruised from carrying ladders. But ... it's wonderful. One day, heading home from the work site, there were two of us and just the one wheelbarrow. The other guy volunteered to take it; "No," I told him, "I'll wheel it to the end of the street here, then you can take over." At the end of the street he offered again. "No - just to the top of the hill there ..." When else do I get to really use my God-given health like this?

(Speaking of my God-given health, this body needs some rest, so this post is over ... tune in tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!)

I'm back!

Two weeks later, here I am in South Bend. I have a lot to tell you all but I need some time to organize it all before blogging. Stay tuned ... in the meantime, here's a picture from midway through my trip - this is the house that my crew painted. I'll tell you all about it soon ...

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Leaving town tomorrow - a quick trip to Indy with seven teenagers, then caravan with seven or eight other people Monday for a full day's drive down to Shreveport, LA. It took me until tonight to get excited, to put on the reality of leaving here and going there and entering into another life for two weeks - I've finally reached that weird dreamy detached feeling of transition, when what has been doesn't matter a whole lot and the mind becomes focused on what's ahead. Running through it all in my head - the long hours on the road and the stiff exhausted greasy feeling when you've been in a car twelve hours and the refreshment of stepping out unsteadily onto ground and looking around when you arrive and you're finally there. And the clear and simple, hot and sweaty, life in Allendale - structured work and prayer and food that tastes so good after working, and the peaceful afternoons on the porch at the end of the workday, letting my hair dry in the Louisiana heat while I chat with people I've never met who are my brothers and sisters, and going to bed bone-tired, praise God.

I probably will not be blogging for the next couple of weeks, but I will collect stories to tell you when I get back. God bless you in the meantime, and keep us in your prayers!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

My first digital photo!

Not the best photo ever ... in the middle of a very sunny day ... but I just couldn't wait to take a picture with my new Olympus FE-210. I wanted my first pic to be of something special and this is what I decided on ... the St. Joseph River from the Angela Blvd. bridge, looking south. Whenever I walk "around the river", which is the traditional walk here at the Brewer household (through the neighborhood to Leeper Park, across the Michigan St. bridge, up Northshore Dr., across Angela) I stop and gaze at this view for a few moments. So here it is for you to enjoy.

Monday, July 2, 2007

humanity = relationship

Check out this article from Christianity Today. About how "finding yourself" is a fallacy because we were created to be in relationship with others. Not created to be individuals.