In January of 1999 I spent four months in what is now West Papua, Indonesia (back then it was called Irian Jaya). Recently some of us from my semester have reunited over Facebook. I also had the opportunity recently to see one of my leaders when he and his family came through my hometown. He asked me how my time in Indonesia impacted me and how I look back on it seventeen years later.
The picture collage shares some of my story. I never considered myself a cyclist…still don’t. Riding dirt bikes on massive hills, on trails, and through pig feces was a stretch out of my comfort zone. I don’t how many times I fell off that bike. Then in the picture next to it (which was taken in 2014) is fifteen years later after I completed my second sprint triathlon. It was eighteen months after I learned to swim (I could dog paddle but could not do any type of stroke) and began cycling again. Again a step out of my comfort zone. But triathlon (and running too) has opened up a new world to me I embrace wholeheartedly.
I am still not the most comfortable on a bike. But I can tell you one of the themes of my whole Indonesia experience is breaking through the fear barrier even if it equals failure. So here’s more of my story…and if you don’t like reading long blog posts…feel free to end right here.
Tammy Wisley visited my college in the fall of 1997 sharing about a new semester abroad program in West Papua (then called Irian Jaya) Indonesia. Ever since some of my friends went to Spain on a semester abroad program the year prior, my interest peeked in doing one too. I wanted to do one that was ministry focused and Eduventure seemed too good to be true. Studying missions and doing adventure activities in the jungles of Indonesia seemed like something I would love. At the time I was passionate about Africa and considered taking a semester off college and living in Kenya for four months. My parents were not keen on the idea. I could not leave the country second semester because my sister was getting married in March of 1998. I was the maid of honor and I wanted to be there for my sister. So both Africa and Indonesia went back in “the maybe” file and I did not think seriously about them for a couple of months.
About one year later in the fall of 1998, I realized time was ticking away if I was going to live my dream of going abroad for a semester. I pursued Africa again, but it did not seem like a good fit anymore. Around this time I received an e-mail from Sandi Wisley who specifically told me she was praying for me to come to Indonesia. It was one of those moments where I felt the Lord speaking to me and saying, “You need to go.” It happened quickly. Whereas some questioned the idea of me spending four months in a country I knew next to nothing about, it was my roommate Liz who picked me up in my moments of doubt and questioning. She encouraged me to do this. It was like she knew in her heart I was supposed to go even before I did.
I was actually most nervous about all the physical activity. Which seems funny in my mind after all the 5Ks, half marathons, marathons and triathlons I have competed in…those all came post Eduventure. I had not played sports past junior high, never did any intense hiking or backpacking, and I did not even know what trekking was. I had ridden my bike on some short trips, but I did not enjoy biking very much. Biking on trail or dirt was only something I had only done playing around on my brother’s dirt bike when I was little. I thought I lacked the ability, but in reality I had little confidence. One thing Eduventure did is help me find it.
I probably should have been nervous about my anxiety. I have struggled with anxiety my whole life, but it was at its worst in October of 1995. I sought help and started understanding my ailment in January of 1996. At the time I was also battling depression which I was told was triggered by the anxiety. I made progress through counseling, cognitive therapy, and a low dose of an antidepressant the next 2 1/2 years. By the time I went to Indonesia in January of 1999, I had been off my medication for a year, and I felt healthy mentally and emotionally. I believed anxiety and depression were ghosts of my past that would never rear their ugly head again.
When I went on short term mission projects in high school, I was amazed how “good” and anxiety-free I felt on the duration of the trip. I remember walking the streets of Mexico having a strange feeling like I was “home.” I was in a place I could spend months in at a time even though my trips were one to two weeks long. I never wanted to go back to the US when the trip was over. I thought my four months in Indonesia would “feel that way.”
When it came to short term mission trips, my heart was in the right place. On the applications I always wrote I was going first and foremost to serve my Lord and Savior. I thought missions could possibly be in my future and I was ready to leave behind the comforts of the USA.
Looking back, mission trips were a good escape for me. I was in high school in the 1990’s and these were the hardest years of my dad’s ministry as a pastor. My family dealt with multiple difficulties some related to our church and some centered on our family. There were times I felt invisible or unimportant. We moved in 1989 from Indiana to Michigan. Although I made friends quickly and cherish those people, there were many times I felt like an outsider. I did not fully fit into our new life in Michigan, and my new church never became “home.” When I went to Mexico, or inner city Chicago, or down south to Texas on mission projects, I was surrounded by people I could be real with. I got a break from the stress of my life back at home.
When I went to Indonesia I was on a team of seven girls and five guys. I appreciated each one of them and what they taught me. The close authentic friendships I craved with them took time. Due to my anxiety which often made me clingy, I was not the easiest person to be friends with. There were times I was shy and held back. Other times I was overwhelmed with emotion which repelled people. I did not know how to express the difficulties in adjusting to life in Indonesia. Sometimes being transparent has its costs.
However, it was one of those moments where I realized that God was all I had and that had to be enough. As I am writing this, I keep thinking of Chris Tomlin’s song “Your Grace Is Enough.” I had to rely on God’s strength day by day and hour by hour. It was almost like God was saying to me, “You can suck your teammates dry, but only I can give you what they can’t.” It was hard to be honest with myself that I really was struggling. That I was questioning why I went all the way to Indonesia for four months. But that I had to persevere.
There were too many times I held back and did not immerse myself in the culture as I originally thought I would. I remember the children that stole my heart on my trips to Mexico and the young people I befriended in Romania. I thought it would be easier to jump right into the culture and build relationships with the local Dani people. It was intimidating and I found it easier to interact with some of the children than the adults. The language barrier was difficult. Their shyness and my shyness worked against one another. I made efforts here and there. The biggest impact for me was seeing the love the missionaries had for the people. I think I realized the difference between short term missions and long term missions. It took a tremendous amount of time and sacrifice for these missionaries to invest in these relationships. That is something I have carried with me in every single ministry setting since.
At the conclusion of my semester, I set several goals. Recently I found my journal which contained those goals.
- Seek to please God not man
- Not Gossip
- Money budgeting
- Work two jobs summer of 1999
- Depression–no longer be on meds
- Continued self confidence
Most of these goals are lifetime goals and it is difficult to measure if they were achieved. Obviously I believe we are tainted by sin and will never reach perfection until Christ comes. I stopped climbing that ladder of good works a long time ago and instead strive to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross can transform all areas of my life. With that being said, spiritual maturity can be given through Christ.
Money budgeting stands out as I was not great at managing money. I went into a marriage gladly handing over the managing of the finances to the husband. With one being a spender (me) and one being a saver (him) we had our moments of friction. Getting involved in Dave Ramsey only months after we were married and shedding some stubborn attitudes helped tremendously.
Coming home from Indonesia that summer in 1999 was the starting point of me being more responsible. I wanted to work at a camp for a third summer, but I realized I needed to work two higher paying jobs to help pay for my last year of college. I learned the benefit and rewards of hard work. Honestly I was not the hardest worker and maybe slightly lazy before that summer.
I don’t know what #5 “Rob” meant. At the time we had only been dating three months so maybe my goal was to figure out our relationship. Some people bluntly said we should get engaged that summer of 1999. Instead it was a summer that we were able to prepare for engagement because we were not quite ready for that. We both worked a lot of hours. When we were not working, we spent quality time together that sometimes included one or two close friends or family members. It was a simple summer and one we needed.
As for depression and not needing medication, I came to the point where I realized that medication does not equal being weak. Actually it can be the opposite. Some extraordinary people I know personally and others I have read about have done amazing things in their ministries and they struggle with anxiety and/or depression. I am reminded over and over again that God shines through our weaknesses. Acknowledging our shortcomings and taking responsibility for them is the place to begin. I have not struggled with what I would define as “depression” for many years. I take care of my anxiety which I still struggle with and always will to some degree. This was one of the main causes of my previous depression. Exercising on a regular basis helps as does living in Oregon (I love the Pacific Northwest!) and many other lifestyle choices. I will fight for my mental health and encourage others to do so. We don’t need to be entangled and trapped by it and I truly believe God can use it for good.
In many ways I feel like we are living the glory years right now. We love our home, our church, the various ministries we’re involved in, our jobs, our three kids, and the opportunities set before us. Our kids are old enough that we can do a lot of fun activities with them but not old enough that they would rather be with their friends.
The last couple years I have run an in home day care. It’s a job I never in a million years thought I would be doing. I did day care many years ago and walked away thinking that era of my life was over. I have grown to love it. It’s just my business, my work, or my job–it’s my calling.
My husband is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, the denomination we both grew up in. However our kids go to a Lutheran school and are not being raised in a homogeneous Christian Reformed community like I was–something I wanted for them. I grew up in a community where I could assume everyone on my street was a Christian and/or went to church and now I live in a place where I can assume most people are not Christians. Youth ministry, community outreach, evangelism looks different here than it did in Michigan where I previously lived. Sometimes it is challenged, frustrating, and draining. Yet my heart is humbled as I listen to my middle schoolers in my youth group share about how hard it is to share their faith at school with their friends who don’t believe in God. I love these kids in a deeper way than I loved the youth group kids in Michigan when I was in my 20’s.
We have had hard weeks, months, and some harder years since we moved out here in 2006. I know God will throw more challenges our way and we could be living the calm before the storm. I never want us to be overly comfortable. I want us to constantly be seeking the Lord and taking leaps of faith when He tells us to “Jump.” Seventeen years ago God told me to “jump” when I went to Indonesia. I am grateful for the experience and like so many have said previously–I use the tools I learned there in every single ministry/calling I have served in since.