Category Archives: Personal

My COVID-19 Travel Experience (long)

A Mask within a Mask –Inception Level COVID Protection

Caveats

I’m going to try to give an account of my travel from Cameroon to the US and back in July/August 2020. But I feel a few caveats are in order, before I get started. One observation that I found almost everywhere I went is that COVID-19 policy implementation is in complete chaos, due to the frequency at which the data changes, at which the recommendations, executive orders and rulings based on that data (or not) change, and as people at multiple levels of society try to keep up with the above and their implications. I got push back in making the observation “no one knows what they’re doing” exactly once, from a medical professional. Almost everyone else was saying this before I could even ask what they thought.

Two examples to show what I mean. Before arriving, I was told that the mask executive order in Texas was contested. Apparently there are counties where sheriffs have gone on record saying they would not enforce it. Someone else told me people are asking where (cities, stores) they can shop without being asked to wear a mask, and getting concrete answers. Another conflict between state and local governments arose with regard to the opening of the school year. We have friends who are teachers, who ask how they are to manage being physically in a school building (as teachers) without being able to send their child to one (if school is going to be online only). Their county announced (during our visit) that no school in the county could open except online in the fall. That same week, the state responded by saying schools need at least some butts in seats if they want any funding at all. Neither of these political bodies employs our friends, but the school districts that do have to decide how to respond to these government bodies soon, and our friends will then have to respond to those decisions. You can imagine it is unsettling to not know yet what your employer will do, because the government bodies they are subject to haven’t finished sorting out their relationship yet…

Anyway, in this context, I think the one productive thing I can do is share my experience, in the hope that it will help someone. We have often been in the position of pioneering, and were some of the first of those we know to leave Cameroon on commercial (i.e., not evacuation) flights, and some of the first to return/come here since the borders closed in March.

I’ve already mentioned the politically charged atmosphere of most discussions of COVID-19; odds are, whoever you are, you will disagree (perhaps vehemently) with something I describe here. Still I offer my experience, as I sought to make this trip in a clean conscience, and hope that perhaps you would find better solutions to the difficulties we faced.

And finally, as with any anecdotal data, your mileage may vary. I assume some of what we went through is part of the new normal —and might be something you would encounter on a similar trip. Probably other aspects of this trip are in such transition that what you would see today is already very unlike what I experienced. I remain hopeful that someone will be helped through these transitions by the sharing of my experience, however different their experience might be.

Planning

Normally, when we travel internationally, we set dates and buy tickets months in advance (having done advance planning before that), based on our understanding of strategic priorities on the field and in the US, including airfare cost. There have often been Department of State warnings about going where we go, but that has pretty much always been part of the job —not that we ignore those warnings, but we consider them alongside other factors, like the fact that security situation isn’t likely to change in the near term, while the need for our work is there now. This is the first time we have dealt with actually closed borders, for any reason. We’ve had difficulty getting across borders before, like clearing immigration on each side of Lake Albert, going from D. R. Congo to Uganda. But we do the research, figure out how to make the logistics work, and get it done one way or another. This year, borders closed, and planes simply stopped flying. So when we needed to get our eldest to college for this fall, we were up against another logistical problem altogether.

So we bought refundable tickets (taking two trips downtown to make that happen) and paid more for them than I can every recall paying for plane tickets. Then a week later, they were (categorically and unilaterally) cancelled by Air France, who said the flight was needed for a medical supply run. We had heard that the president had authorized one Air France flight (only) to come and go each week, so we weren’t sure what to make of the multiple weekly flights we saw scheduled and offered to us. Maybe they would book lots of flights, then cancel all but one of them? We don’t know what they were thinking, but certainly they have a profit to make, as does any for-profit corporation. In any case, most of the people we know who were trying to get out of the country had at least one set of tickets cancelled —one had five sets cancelled, another had to change airlines. But we all had uncertainty, up to and including the day of the flight. That is, we had some kind of problem when we checked into the airport, and it wasn’t immediately clear that they would actually let us on the plane. Once the plane took off, there was a lot of relief, but that meant that the time and energy we would normally spend planning a trip like this just wasn’t there. Yes, we planned, but I only have so much time and energy for planning and re-planning a trip as the airline cancels tickets, so I (at least) didn’t plan as much as we normally would have —not by a long shot. And this is in addition to the fact that that ticket change made a (already short) four week trip into one just over three weeks, which meant it went at light speed, in terms of international trips (with transition, get lag, etc. on each end).

Another wrench that sucked time and energy from our planning were administrative questions that seemed to keep coming up. We kept a close eye on Cameroonian decrees, of course, but we also constantly heard of new recommendations, orders and rulings, and their implementations at various levels and locations in the US, and had to figure out how to deal with those (e.g., if I needed to be locked in a house for two of the three weeks in the US, then the trip wouldn’t make sense at all —so the quarantine rules and implementation were fairly important to clarify in our planning). We thought we had covered all the new COVID-19 policies of the organizations under which we work (which were also in flux), but a week before our trip another set of policies came down, and it was unclear how they would apply to us.

So needless to say this trip was necessary (we really didn’t want to put James on a boat, and just hope he made it across the Atlantic ocean to Galveston…), but probably the least well planned international trip that I have ever taken —both in terms of having the logistics organized ahead of time, and in terms of Kim and I thinking through (and together) our objectives for the trip and how to achieve them.

There were two documents we prepared for the trip to the US, based on information we had about documentation requirements. The first was “INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL CERTIFICATE TO MAINLAND FRANCE FROM A THIRD COUNTRY*”, which we understood would be required by France. We had a source that said that it wouldn’t be needed for transiting through the Paris airport (CDG), and another that said it was required even for transit passengers. The first version we saw had no allowance for transit passengers (i.e., there was no legitimate reason allowed on the form for us to travel —we don’t have a primary residence in France, for instance), but ultimately we found a version that had the line “Third country nationals, transiting less than 24 hours in an international area to reach their country of origin and who are holders of a travel document to this country;”, so we checked that, and brought that along. Spoiler alert: we never needed this document, in either direction.

The other document we prepared before leaving Cameroon was entitled “Declaration Sur l’Honneur”, and basically said

je soussigné(e) …. Attests sur l’honneur ne présenter aucun syumptôme lié au COVID19. Date.

I think I saw another version of this that added also that one hadn’t had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, but not on the version we ended up with. In any case, to spoil it again, I was never asked for this form. Maybe I should have subtitled this blog entry “having lots of forms, many of which I didn’t actually need”.

Traveling to The US

So on the trip itself, I had an interesting problem in check-in. Because we were travelling on two different confirmation codes (being more than four people), but wanting to sit together, I had this great idea: have two computers open side by side, and Kim and I each log in and pick seats together. Well, I don’t know if it was because I tried this, or for some other reason, but Kim and James got to log in online, and I couldn’t. I just kept getting an error message, whatever I tried. Since I didn’t want to leave this for the airport, I sent Air France a message on twitter. Interestingly, they responded a couple days after we landed in the US. And after several rounds of me explaining how the flight was booked and sold by (as well as operated by) Air France, they continued to insist that I couldn’t check in because Delta was operating that flight. Despite the fact (also) that Kim checked-in online for the same set of flights… Anyway, I ultimately realized that everyone was probably at least as stressed as I was, and that helped a little, but it was a very stressful time.

At the airport, when I tried to check in, they pulled me into a back office (where they sent a number of people), where I basically just watch this lady make changes to our tickets. I don’t really have any idea what she did, but some half an hour later, we went back out to the check-in counters, and checked in as usual.

I say “as usual”, though by this point I had already put on latex gloves, which I had bought at a pharmacy for the purpose of not touching things going through the airport (and especially security). Unfortunately they were both cheapy and small, so I went through a few gloves before getting to security —once my thumb got caught in my backpack (IIRC), and I lost that part of the glove altogether. Anyway, I got a box of 100, so we didn’t run out, and the kids rather enjoyed the experience.

At security I pulled out my doctor’s note saying I needed to bring my own protein-based food onto the plane, and had no questions about my boiled eggs —perhaps for first time.

Once through security, there was a longish wait (as we hadn’t know how long the formalities would take, and I think we beat the rush), so we got some food and hung out. I sat in a section that had the only electrical outlets I could find, until people came along and told me I should be elsewhere. Throughout the airport, every other seat had a “don’t sit here” sign on it, as in this blog post.

On the plane (NSI-CDG), we were told by Air France personnel that we couldn’t wear the masks we made (and brought five copies of for the several flights home). We had to wear “surgical” masks. I asked the guy who gave me mine I what I should do when it got wet or dirty, as it surely would on this (long) flight, where we are eating and drinking multiple times. He said “leave it on,” and ultimately “if you take it off, the sky marshals will escort you from the plane.” So I left the mask on, even after I sneezed in it (the breathing of which I do NOT recommend).

Other than being packed in the plane like sardines as usual, the flight was more or less uneventful. In fact, it was only on our next flight, where I wondered why they had so completely NOT distanced us on that flight, especially given the WHO recommendation that distancing is more important than mask wearing… Anyway, this is another lesson in implementation. Each corporation (and individual) has to figure out what to do with all the rules and recommendations, in a given situation. And almost certainly, whatever they actually decide to do in a given situation is not going to make sense to at least one witness to that event… but I digress.

Our flight to Paris arrived more or less on time, and had a fairly simple immigration check to depart the gate (maybe the second time I have ever experienced a check of any kind to depart a plane/gate). But they were not asking for COVID-19 forms of any kind, neither a negative test result, nor the “INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL CERTIFICATE TO MAINLAND FRANCE FROM A THIRD COUNTRY*”, which I was told we would need. We got put aside while we waited for our whole family (since we had been seated throughout the plane, and didn’t all leave the plane together). In the mean time, I saw the national police screen a large section of the plane. They were basically asking typical immigration questions —not actually giving visas, but looking through passports to confirm that each person had a right to be there, either an ongoing flight, national status, or a visa, etc. A few people had problems and got set aside for further treatment later; I think one had a plan change en route, and simply didn’t have the documentation, I think another assumed he had the right to be there, but didn’t. Anyway, they were asking about immigration issues, not COVID-19.

Once in the airport and at our (first) departure gate, we found that our flight was “at least” three hours late. No explanation, and no idea when the flight would actually leave. And no way to fix our third leg (which we would now miss) or our seats, which had been reserved in random places (recall I hadn’t been able to check in before arriving at the airport). That was all a Delta problem, and there were no Delta people there until later in the day (we were told).

But eventually (after a couple hours, including a gate change and some exploration) we found someone from Delta, explained our situation, and they got us set up fairly quickly with new flights, boarding passes and seats. One seat apart from each other, despite the fact that we were all in the same household… But they also provided a few lights snacks we couldn’t eat, and vouchers for airport food, because of the delay. So it wasn’t a total loss. Though the Starbucks not being open yet remained a bit of a loss for some.

The next flight (CDG-ALT) was also fairly uneventful, though also fairly empty. Every other seat was empty, as were many others. It was hard to tell how much of this was explicit booking policy of Delta (as were told) and how much of this was people just not flying yet. One issue I am confident was at play was the fact that US policy said only Americans can fly into the US from France (among other places), so I assume anyone else that would otherwise have been on the plane simply wasn’t able to be yet. I should comment that the bathrooms were the cleanest of any I’ve seen in any airplane (perhaps in my life, which is a lot of airplanes), perhaps because of how unused they were.

Somewhere between my seat on that plane and security in Atlanta, I set down my phone, and couldn’t get back to it. I wrote DELTA, talked to multiple TSA agents, and called ATL lost and found, which provided no results. I don’t know if it was stolen, or just lost in an unrecoverable manner, but not having my one constant organizational tool at the beginning of an already minimally organized trip was NOT ideal.

On the plane, we filled out info pages for the CDC with our contact info. Getting off the plane, we were given CDC info cards, suggesting home isolation on arrival. Several days later we got semi-informative texts asking us to do things that had no force of law, as far as we could tell (some of which were also practically impossible, without a TARDIS).

So we made it through customs and security (me multiple times, looking for my phone), and found a food court low on food (or at least meat). We found a place with hamburgers, and got Wendy’s Frosties, though they ran out of chocolate after about two…. I think some of that was the growing pains of airport services (like restaurants) figuring out how many people they were serving, as things were much shut down, but not entirely.

Our final trip (ATL-DFW) was similarly semi-booked, and mostly uneventful. Though I did have the dubious honor of trying to use what I believe was the smallest airplane toilet I have ever seen (again, in my somewhat lengthy airplane experience). Rarely have I found that kind of pain while trying to relax…

In the US (Texas only)

One of the largest take-homes from our time in the US (only in Texas) was that there were lots of different expectations. These seemed to vary often by political affiliation, but many very divergent opinions and practices existed within even one church community.

As we got around, we saw lots of “must wear a mask” signs, but also lots of non-conformity (e.g., beard masks, as we often see in Cameroon —I’m sure some lawyer somewhere is making a killing litigating what exactly “wear a mask” means…)

Almost everywhere we went, we were asked about our travel history, and for the most part it wasn’t a problem. But doctor offices were particularly weird —I went in for a sleep study consultation, but my wife (who observes my sleep more than anyone else, get the relevance?) was not allowed in. In fact, she was asked to fill out paperwork in the hallway (where there shouldn’t be any COVID-19, right?). The greater irony for me was seeing a woman (who I had just seen not wearing a mask, in the office), leaned in to do something medical (I think it was measure my neck? —which I could have done myself, BTW) and commented jokingly about doing something non-COVID-approved. Anyway, lots of different implementations to deal with.

Our last couple days were full of packing the containers we had just bought (for this purpose) full of the resupply stuff we had bought on the trip, and also figuring out what to do with the COVID-19 test.

Getting the COVID-19 test

So, before even starting this trip (back in the almost non-existent planning phase, if you recall me describing that), I was asking how to get a COVID-19 test. The doctor at the clinic told me (what she repeated when I arrived) that the location and availability of testing sites seems to change so rapidly that she really couldn’t make any recommendation. Apparently there are a number of companies making tests, and different medical offices giving them. And they all want to win the war of being known for being the fastest and most reliable.

So at the beginning of the last week of our trip, I found a clinic that claimed to have drive through service with 15-30 min results. And they communicate by SMS, so I was in (not wanting to sit on the phone, nor be chained to Email). But they didn’t have timely answers to my questions, particularly when I found out that Cameroon didn’t require just any test, but a PCR test. In case you aren’t familiar with these, there are three different kinds of tests:

  • Antibody tests look for your immune system’s response to the virus that causes COVID-19. I took this test on my first days in the US, to confirm that I had not previously (i.e., in Cameroon) had COVID-19.
  • Antigen tests look for specific proteins on the cell wall of the virus that causes COVID-19. This test is often very rapid, but considered to be less reliable (as low as 50%, here and here).
  • Polimerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests look for genetic material of the virus that causes COVID-19. PCR is a methodology that is well understood, and with a significant history (I performed PCR studies as part of my work as an undergraduate assistant in a lab at Oregon State University). It is also the gold standard for confirming presence of the COVID-19 virus. Unfortunately, results (at least everywhere we asked) take at least two days, more likely 14.

So what’s the problem? Couldn’t we just get a PCR test, and be done with it? No, we couldn’t (at least again, not without a TARDIS). The problem was that the PCR requirement, both for France and for Cameroon, includes the fact that the test must be less than 72hrs (=3*24hrs) old. There was some lack of clarity upfront as to whether it would need that age when we started our trip, or when we started the last leg of our trip, 22hrs (i.e., almost a full day) later. In France (i.e., after we were on our trip), it was confirmed that they were checking for the 72hr timestamp as we boarded the plane in France for Cameroon. So that means we need to

  • take a test (at time t),
  • get the results (at t+r, where r is the amount of time it takes to get results), then
  • board the plane (at time t+r+b, where b is the time between when we get our results and when we board the plane, presumably a positive number), and
  • travel to France to be ready for the boarding of the flight for Cameroon (at t+r+b+l, where l is travel and layover times from the start of our first trip, to the start of the last leg).

The French border police are looking for a test dated where (t+r+b+l) – t <72hrs (or r+b+l <72hrs, if you remember your Algebra I :-)) . That is, we need to wait to get results back, get on the plane, and travel to our final leg, in less than 72 hrs.

Given (r>2 days) for any PCR test we were offered, and that (l ~ 1 day) for our itinerary, (r+b+l <72hrs) was practically impossible to achieve, even if r = 0, i.e., we grabbed our results and immediately jumped on the plane (which I wouldn’t recommend for sanity’s sake, even if it were achievable).

So I called Air France, and asked what to do. When I did, I was politely informed that not only did Cameroon require a 72hr PCR test for entry, but France now did as well. I pointed out the Email I had just received from Air France, saying that such a test was “recommended”, and she clarified that the rule had just been changed. But because of the recent change, they wouldn’t be enforcing it yet, until Aug 5 (which is now past; implementation again). So what can my wife do with this impossible situation, I asked? She leaves in two weeks. Well, she can call the French consulate and ask for intervention… No kidding, this was the best answer I got. Well, there was another answer, which you might think is better, or not: wait a week and call again. Maybe the rule or the implementation of it will change (again). Wow. Never thought that would be good news…

Anyways, I was told (twice) that the test at the center where I made a “Drive-Thru” appointment was PCR, so I tried to calm down and wait. Recall that (r+b) can’t be more than two days, so I had to take this test Friday morning at the earliest, for a flight leaving DFW on Sunday —and I had other things to do before that flight. So I tried to trust that our appointment would work out, and that our results would all come back negative, and in a timely manner. I had an appointment for 8:30am Friday morning, and was asked to arrive at 8:15. Upon doing so, I found a (cardboard and marker) sign directing us to another (nearby) location. There I found a line of some ten cars waiting, and a policeman directing me to remain in my car on the road, so as to not block the employees parking spots (since they might leave any minute?). We waited in line, filled all the paperwork, then were told to wait in the parking lot across the street until called. We finally finished the “Drive-Thru” test after 10am. We then had to drop a carload half an hour away and get Kim out of our B&B by 11am. So when I was asked to wait another 45 mins for our results, I just said “I’ll be back.” I should have thought of “Drive-Thru” like “Drive-in”, as in “Drive-in Movie”. Because while I did stay in my car the whole time, I was there a solid two hours (before waiting for results).

So we dropped our stuff, and checked out of the B&B late, with pretty much everyone tired and hot. It wasn’t until about noon before we got back to the clinic for our results. But when we got the results, while they were negative, but clearly marked as antigen tests (i.e., not the PCR tests we needed). After trying hard not to sound like Karen, I was eventually told that I could get a PCR test that day, and have the results in 14 days. This after spending LOTS of energy all week texting (and even calling) their center for precisely this information…

So it was now Friday morning, and I had results from the wrong test, and even less time to try to get another test done. In addition to panicking, I filled out the form and submitted our results to the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority, at the address as requested at the bottom of the form entitled “COVID-19 PREVENTION TRACKING FORM FOR PASSENGERS TRAVELLING TO CAMEROON”.

The form was already out of date (it was for May 4 to June 30, 2020), but I didn’t have a new form, and don’t know whether another version of it (or something else) would be required. As of this writing, the French version is found here, from a link in this article. You might find an English version by searching for “Prévention COVID-ENG-v3.0”. The English article corresponding to the above is not there (again of this writing), but it may be missing because of site maintenance. I don’t recall getting this document from anywhere else (though I frankly can’t recall why I would have looked there, either —I assume Air France gave me this doc, and I’ve just forgotten it). I also have it under the name “Attestation pour l’entrée au Cameroun_Prévention COVID-FRA-v3.0.pdf”

Anyway, I sent this form and scans of our (clearly marked “antigen”) tests off by Email at 14:43 (Central time), expecting to not get an answer, ever. But in hopes of one, I asked. And I bluffed a bit about the test (about getting a test other than the one I asked for), but hoped he would say it was OK. I wrote:

As indicated in the attached documents, we plan to arrive back in Yaoundé on 3 August, 2020, on flight AF 0982. To comply with Cameroonian regulations, we asked for rapid PCR COVID tests, and these are the (negative) results we obtained. Before traveling to the airport, we would like to confirm that this is sufficient documentation. Is this enough, or are you looking for something else? Thank you for your quick response, which will allow us to return to our home in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

I included a French translation as well, not knowing who would read this. At 11am Saturday morning (Less than 24 hrs later), I got the most concise and beautiful Email I have ever received (which, if you know me well, is high praise!):

Bonjour,
Oui les documents que vous avez transmis sont suffisants et conformes. Merci et bon voyage.
Cordialement

So I worked out a way (through a gracious friend) to have this printed, in addition to the other docs I had already planned to bring along. And it was the first document I showed every official that said anything about COVID-19. I assume if the Cameroon Civil Aviation Authority says we’re OK, no one else should have a problem. Interestingly, it didn’t seem like anyone cared much —not the French police, nor the vaccination card checker when we landed in Cameroon. But it sure gave me a lot of peace, knowing I had that Email in case of need.

Returning to Cameroon

In addition to documentation and qualities of the COVID-19 test itself, I also asked the Air France employee on the phone about the “INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL CERTIFICATE TO MAINLAND FRANCE FROM A THIRD COUNTRY*”, which I had not been asked for on the way through CDG the last time. She assured me that I would need it this time; they were now requiring it even of transit passengers —though that did not turn out to be true, at least not for us.

So about 24hrs before my flight left DFW, I had some assurance that I had my documents sufficiently in order, and that I would be allowed on each flight. Possibly my second least planned international flight, only beat by my coming to the US three weeks earlier.

So in terms of how things actually worked out, I wasn’t allowed to check in (again), and was told on the phone it was because of document checks, and that I should arrive at the airport three hours early to make sure I could resolve them all before my flight. Note that I was doing this with two of my children. Kim and James accompanied us to the counter for the documentation check process, which I was grateful for —I had forgotten they would be able to do this, as DFW isn’t one of the airports we know that has a security/boarding pass check on entry, meaning only those flying can enter (e.g., Entebbe airport).

So I went to the counter, by means of our normal bag shuffle (someone on each end, everyone else shuttling bags…) and I met a Delta agent, who turned out to be from a West African country (Benin?). I found this out when he mentioned that he knew French (in looking at the CCAA Email), then later I asked him about his interesting name (which is just one of many details that I don’t still have in my head…) Anyway, he looked at our cartes d’organisme and the CCAA Email and the tests, and pretty much just checked us in. This normally takes some time, so I’m not sure how much more this took, but maybe only another 15 minutes —definitely not another hour, as I feared based on what I had been told on the phone. I think it helped that I had everything in order.

Based on what I’ve seen from airlines and immigration rules in the past (i.e., that they are held responsible to repatriate people they bring into a country illegally), I assumed I should be fine at least entering France, as the Air France person had told me I would be, on the phone.

Going through TSA was mostly uneventful, though Anna got selected for additional screening. The TSA wondered for a bit what to do with her gloves (latex, that we had all put on again), and they ended up testing the outside of them only. Not sure what they thought that would do. After TSA, we got stuck watching CNN for a couple hours before we could board.

The first leg (DFW-ATL) was pretty uneventful, with notable changes being that the Mexican place in the Atlanta airport had meat (though they were out of beans and rice!), and Wendy’s had enough chocolate for three Frosties. We hung out at our departure gate, where a French Air France employee was screening people for COVID-19 docs and informing them what they would need to enter France (i.e., “INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL CERTIFICATE TO MAINLAND FRANCE FROM A THIRD COUNTRY*”). For those whose final destination was not France, he wasn’t worried, and just let us through with a temperature check. There was an interesting moment where a few women in hijabs with lots more kids were asked if they wanted to pre-board, because they could, but it wasn’t clear that they understood English at all, and they didn’t. They also weren’t really wearing face masks, but no one bothered them —I don’t recall seeing them again later.

One weird thing, boarding the flight for Paris, Air France had us look into a facial recognition device to verify our identity. No boarding pass check at all; they didn’t even want to see them. I assume they got the photos to compare against from our passports, but it was rather on the freaky side. I’m sure that tech could never be used for anything less innocuous… But they provided “surgical” face masks when we showed up with our cloth ones.

Arriving in France (CDG), I don’t recall any check on exiting the aircraft/gate. Neither immigration check (as when coming from Yaoundé), nor COVID-19 check (as I was told to expect by the Air France agent on the phone). We made our way to the connection counter, and waited behind Americans yelling in English. One had some kind of ticket problem, and called his mom on speakerphone —who swore at him for probably a half an hour for whatever he was trying to apologize for. Another pair of women had no test, saying they were never told they needed one. I don’t know how that resolved, but the Air France agents were out of their minds about that —not sure how it came about, but good thing to avoid.

One big change at CDG was that the Starbucks was open this time around. And we had one gate change, again, and waited for our flight (I only saw one guy with a “Trump 2020” hat; I assumed he knew he was in France —maybe reading “A Tale of Two Cities”).

There were piles of people trying to get on this flight (to Cameroon), all trying to push forward in line, all being told to sit down to no avail. Once we started boarding, there was a check by a couple French national police, which seemed to take a long time. It seems like many of the questions I had been wrestling with over the last week, were being addressed here for the first time, for some people. Apparently some people arrived at this moment with tests that were more than 72hrs old, because they had been travelling a day or more to get here. I don’t know if people were criticized for having the wrong test; I thought that I heard that at one point, but I can’t frankly recall now.

Lots of frustrated people later, an Air France agent got on the loudspeaker and announced that there were people who had tests over 72 hours old, and they had called Cameroon to find out what to do about them. They said the Cameroonian authorities said they should be let through, and would be tested on arrival in Cameroon. But there were supposedly less than 15 of them, so it shouldn’t be a big problem…

Except that once this news came down, the checking procedure seemed to totally change. There were one or two more people checking, and no way they checked as thoroughly. The agent who checked our docs was not with the French national police, and she didn’t read our documents. I showed her the CCAA Email, but she didn’t care. She asked for the tests. She counted three tests, and wanted to see the word “negative”. Which I think she could have seen on one of the tests, but not on all three —and then we were through.

We scanned our boarding passes (no facial recognition here), and they told us to get some “surgical” masks on the way to the plane. We boarded maybe an hour after we were supposed to take off. Maybe not quite, but it was easily an hour after our scheduled departure time when we got an announcement that it would be another 20 minutes, because someone didn’t show, so they had to remove bags from the hold. A full *two hours* after that, we finally took off (i.e., three hours late). I had heard “repasser” in the French version of the announcement, so I joked that maybe they were opening bags and ironing all our clothes… About two hours after we boarded, when Joel was about finished with his first movie of that flight, I mentioned that we were still on the ground —to his stunned disbelief and amazement. Hello, the real opiate of the masses.

When we landed at Yaoundé (NSI), we were asked to social distance by remaining in our seats until there was six feet of space in the aisle in front of us. Which no one did, of course. We found (as elsewhere) that you can sometimes control the space in front of you, but almost never that behind you. As we were getting off, there were a number of people getting VIP treatment and rushed through the crowds by agents of some kind or another, including one woman who brought a newborn baby to greet what was presumably its father and a number of friends at the door of the airplane.

As we walked the gangway into the airport, people rushed past us, some with escorts, others without —even after we were standing still because there was no distanced space in front of us. The marks on the floor to distance ourselves were basically ignored —there were two columns indicated, and many people just went past us in between them. We were not the only people passed in this way; many Africans were trying to distance as we were.

When we got to the front of the line, three things happened. First, they sprayed our carry on bags (we had a heads up on this, having seen it three weeks earlier, watching the people leave the plane that would take us out of Cameroon). They didn’t spray us (!), just our bags, but they did make us face a temperature scanner, and accept some very thick hand sanitizer. Once we did that, the rest was basically as normal.

Except that where they check for yellow/immunization cards, they also asked for the COVID-19 tests. The guy that checked us seemed uninterested in the cover letter from the CCAA, and not obviously able to read the test result, which was written in English. Anyway, he eventually let us through, without taking the “COVID-19 PREVENTION TRACKING FORM FOR PASSENGERS TRAVELLING TO CAMEROON” forms we had prepared. And while that form has two options, each of which contain the words (more or less): “sign a commitment to self-confinement upon arrival in Cameroon for 14 days”, there was no requirement to do so at the airport, nor any opportunity to.

That is, the health check guy did not ask us to sign anything about a quarantine or isolation, nor present any opportunity to do so if we had wanted to. There was no mention or even a suggestion of quarantine or isolation —so maybe that form is completely out of date after all.

Or maybe that was never the intention at all: on this page, I find the following text:

Par contre, les passagers n’ayant pas de résultats de tests négatifs au COVID récents ont eu à souscrire à un engagement d’auto-confinement à domicile ou pour des hôtels de leurs choix, pendant une période de 14 jours à l’issue de laquelle ils se sont engagés à refaire le test.

That is, it is the people who don’t have recent negative tests who will be asked to sign quarantine or isolation forms. Anyway, I just looked up the government’s letter (of 11 May 2020) allowing Air France flights to start up again, and it doesn’t mention quarantine (just auto-confinement, as above. I.e., self isolation —only— and without any duration). So maybe any requirement of quarantine or self-isolation of any particular length is already going beyond the decree of the Cameroonian government.

The final bit had two tweaks. First, our bags took forever. I know someone’s bags have to come out last, and maybe this time it was just ours. But it took forever. I think this might be in part because they were disinfecting our bags, but I don’t really know. Anyway, customs was as usual (no questions this time).

But my largest surprise was the lack of a staple at this airport —lots of people hoping we’ll hire them as taxis or porters, right outside the airport doors. One of the ATMs was down, so I had to use the other, but usually by then, I would have seen whoever was there to pick us up. So I now had the cash to hire a taxi if I needed to, but no idea if someone was picking me up or not, or who (not having heard back before my flight, and not having internet yet to check).

So we wandered around for a bit, and eventually went to the larger parking lot, where the crowd of people stood trying to get our attention. Apparently doing that 50 yards away from the airport doors is less COVID-19 exposure than doing it at the airport doors? Anyway, as soon as we got there, we recognized the guy there to pick us up, and followed him to his car.

Our organization has since sent out policies on this, but at that time there were no policies about drivers, e.g., why it would be safe for them to be in a car with us when we are supposed to be in quarantine. And there were questions about our baggage, some of which were destined for other people —how they would be processed through quarantine.

And we got to be the first (IIUC) in quarantine after returning to Cameroon, so there are of course bumps along that road —apparently mostly because the center on which we are living is basically shut down, apart from the people who live here and aren’t bound by (or apparently aware of) the quarantine rules we’re under.

But we are grateful to have been able to make the trip, to get James settled in college, to make some important doctors visits, and to resupply. We’re grateful for the many people we got to see, and the many that reached out to us, that we couldn’t see. And for the many people and churches that provided logistical and financial support to make this trip happen. And we are thankful for the Cameroon government, for opening up their borders, just in time for us to squeeze in this trip.

Anyway, having written all this down now, I think my take home is that chaos is the order of the day, so we might as well get used to it. People are making rules based on a constantly changing context, rules that apply to others in a situation they are not themselves subject to (in at least some cases), and apparently not everyone has the same information, nor the same interpretation of the information we each do have. But given that this is our context, we might as well get used to it, and find a way through. This has been my goal the last week: find a way of being OK in our accommodations, and of making it better for those who come after us. This is one reason I’ve written this post, and I hope it helps someone.

At the end of it all I find perspective in scripture:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 (ESV)

So we follow our consciences and pray, knowing that God is in charge of even this chaos, and that He is the one to whom we finally owe account.

International travel through covidland

Starbucks is closed; does this still count as an airport?

Our trip to Paris was fairly uneventful, apart from being told we had to take off our beautifully created cloth facemasks, and put on “surgical” masks, which get wet and dirty easily….

Then we saw that our trip to Atlanta was late, currently by three hours. Air France (from whom we bought the ticket) has no idea why it’s late. They can’t improve our seating in the flight (we are currently all five sitting apart)

And they can’t rebook the flight we will miss because of this very late flight… Until we find a Delta person… Not sure what their partnerships are for, when they deny responsability for each other’s flights, even when they sold the tickets… I guess it’s fair to say everyone is stressed, so we should be glad to make it this far, and to have expectation to make it the rest of the way is a lot better than the alternative!

Peninnah and Promises

I never met a woman named Peninnah until I lived in Africa. I recall first hearing this name, mostly because it was so strikingly novel that I assumed it was a mistake, and had to ask her name again. Even my spellchecker doesn’t recognize this name. But since that first one I met in the year 2000, I’ve known several —but all in Africa.

I found the above particularly interesting, given that it is a Biblical name. People like naming their kids after heroes of the Bible. So why are all the Peninnahs (that I’ve known) in Africa? Why don’t we name our daughters Peninnah in the US? A look at Peninnah’s story sheds light on this, and helps us know a bit more about Africa, and about the promises of God.

She is introduced at the beginning of 1 Samuel 1 (all ESV) :

[Elkanah] had two wives, one named Hannah and the other Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none. (v1)

An exhaustive search of the Bible yields only four references to “Peninnah”, all in 1 Samuel 1:2-6. We know that she was loved and cared for by her husband:

And whenever the day came for Elkanah to present his sacrifice, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. (v4)

But as might be expected in a polygamous household, there was not equal love and care for the two wives:

But to Hannah he would give a double portion, for he loved her even though the LORD had closed her womb. (v5)

So we see that Hannah has more love and care from her husband, but Peninnah has children. Naturally, these two wives of Elkana did not get along:

Because the LORD had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival [Peninnah] would provoke her and taunt her viciously. And this went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival taunted her until she wept and would not eat. (vv6-7)

So one might say that Peninnah was not a particularly nice woman. This may have come in part from her husband loving his other wife more, but in any case, she made Hannah’s life miserable.

In terms of understanding the scriptures, Peninnah is perhaps most helpful to us as a contrast with Hannah, who later gives birth to Samuel. Interestingly enough, I can’t recall ever meeting an African Hannah. But 1 Samuel gives us a lot more information on Hannah. Her character is revealing in response to her co-wife’s taunting:

In her bitter distress, Hannah prayed to the LORD and wept with many tears. (v10)

Her prayers are so moving they are taken for drunkenness. But in the end, the priest of Shiloh looks favorably on her:

“Go in peace,” Eli replied, “and may the God of Israel grant the petition you have asked of Him.” (17)

Whatever might be said of the value of the priesthood of Eli and his sons (e.g., 1 Sam 2:12), Hannah’s worship seems sincere:

The next morning Elkanah and Hannah got up early to bow in worship before the LORD, and then returned home to Ramah. (v19a)

Curiously, Peninnah doesn’t seem to be there at this time. Did she no longer go to Shiloh to worship with her Husband each year? Or was she just written out of the story at this point, as unimportant? Either way, her importance to the story is at least minimized, and there is no Biblical evidence of faithful worship from her at this point (since v4), whereas the importance of Hannah’s faith is paramount:

And Elkanah had relations with his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. So in the course of time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I have asked for him from the LORD.” (vv19b-20)

Hannah prayed for a son, and attributed giving birth to him to God. And in time, she fulfilled the vow she made in v11:

Once she had weaned him, Hannah took the boy with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. Though the boy was still young, she brought him to the house of the LORD at Shiloh. And when they had slaughtered the bull, they brought the boy to Eli.

“Please, my lord,” said Hannah, “as surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the LORD. I prayed for this boy, and since the LORD has granted me what I asked of Him, I now dedicate the boy to the LORD. For as long as he lives, he is dedicated to the LORD.”

So they worshiped the LORD there. (vv24-28)

And as if that were not enough, Hannah gives a magnificat-esque song of thanksgiving (in 1 Sam 2:1-10), prefiguring Mary’s song of praise after Jesus met John the Baptist, while each was still in the womb (in Luke 1:46-55).

So we see that Peninnah and Hannah provide an interstesting clash between what the scriptures elsewhere call children of the flesh and children of the promise.

In Galatians, this contrast is described in terms of law v promise:

For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. (Gal 3:18)

This is an argument against trusting in the Law, but Paul continues to make explicit reference to children born, either as a result of the power of the flesh (the way children are normally born), or as a result of the promise of God.

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.  (Gal 4:22-26)

So Paul says that the children born by the natural power of the flesh are born into slavery, whereas the children born by the supernatural power of the promise of God are born for freedom, for heaven. And just like with Peninnah and Hannah, the two kinds don’t get along:

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. (Gal 4:28-31)

Note that these references are made to the children of the two wives of Abraham (Sarah and Hagar), but the same applies to Peninnah and Hannah. The one bears children by her own strength, and the other, devoid of any such power of her own, bears children by the promise of God.

This principle is found throughout the new testament. The writer of Hebrews talks about the faith of Abraham as a confidence and trust in a specific promise of God:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.  (Heb 6:13-15)

And Paul in Romans contrasts again the inheritance according to the law, and the inheritance according to the promise.

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  (Rom 4:13-14)

I think of it this way. If your father (or someone else you trusted) promised to give you something of great value (house, boat, boathouse, etc), but it you were concerned that he might not follow through, would it make sense to take him to court over it? To go before a judge and insist that you have a legal right to have a personal promise fulfilled just doesn’t make sense. Rather, if a person has promised something, you can address the fulfillment of that promise on the basis of that personal relationship. Unless, of course, your objective is to ditch the relationship and wrangle what you can from the person by force. Good luck trying that with God….

As I think about the promise(s) of God, it helps me to ask what specific promise(s) we’re talking about. This is because I think people can get fuzzy in their thinking, and think of general “promises” without really having something in mind. Whereas I think God has made specific promises which I think are good for us to trust in, just as we commit specific sins of which it is good for us to repent. Romans 9 gives us a very important clarification of (at least one) promise to Abraham, with its relation to election and the salvation of a remnant, as opposed to the whole: 

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”  (Rom 9:6-9)

So the promise was the supernatural birth to Sarah, a 90+ year old woman. For this passage, it is importantly not the natural birth to Hagar, a much younger and more fertile woman. And these two births distinguish between two lines of descendants of Abraham. And So Romans 9 shows “the word of God has [NOT] failed”, because the promise of salvation never was to all Abraham’s descendants, but rather to his descendants by the promise to Sarah.

In the same way, as we look at “all Israel” later in history, we see that not all are saved. But the promise of God never was that each individual would be saved. Rather, those who are born of the promise will be saved, and those who are born of the flesh will not. Jesus says it this way:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.… That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.…” (John 3:3,6)

So those of us who are born again, who are born of the Spirit, according to the promise of God, will see the kingdom of God. Notably, those whose inheritance derives only from the law, or from their own strength, will not.

To me, this is a very sharp criticism of the “self made man.” American culture is full of the ideal of managing everything by our own strength, of never depending on anyone else. I think it is good to be responsible, and to attend to our daily needs without excessively burdening others. But the clear teaching of scripture is that it is the one who depends on the promise of God, not his own strength, who is approved by God.

James, class of 2020

Next month our eldest son James will graduate from Newman International Academy (a faith-based charter high school in Texas), which will include credits earned this senior year abroad at Rain Forest International School in Yaounde, Cameroon. He has accepted a full-tuition award at UT (the University of Texas at Austin) to begin his studies in higher mathematics – a passion of his for several years now. We are your typical bursting-with-pride parents of the Class of 2020.

The token ‘mask’ Senior Picture taken in quarantine in Yaounde, Cameroon

And yet, there is nothing typical about this. Given COVID-19, we may never sit in the stands to celebrate the diploma itself, but if we have the opportunity, I will be the bawling one in the back hiding behind sunglasses. James’ arrival in this world is a story of redemption and restoration (for another post), so it is fitting that his journey continued the theme. I will be the one to cry for my own loss of sharing daily life with him, but more than that I will cry tears of joy and gratitude for all that God has done to raise James over 18 moves in 5 countries.

James, at 9mos, playing on the porch in Chambery, France

Through the years of blogging, many of you have read along with our health journey taking care of James. I count it an immense, unspeakable privilege to be James’ Mom, but to say it was simple, easy or straightforward would be lying. I’m sure most parents feel in hindsight that parenting was more challenging and rewarding than they expected. With the added complexities of parenting through special needs, giftedness and traveling on mission across cultures and languages, it was different than most. The hardest, best task I’ve ever attempted.

Any parent of a smarty-pants kid understands the pressure and strain to help them run free with their gifts balanced with slowing them down long enough to bring all the tools they need into adulthood. Developing a strong work ethic in a kid who doesn’t have to work hard in school can be a challenge. Somewhere in the middle it occurred to us that all the eternal things we wanted to instill in our son were not found in academics. What mattered most to us was the character of the man we were raising. With fear and trembling, step by step, the Lord has walked this road with us and developed an amazing godly young man in James.

James, almost 3, feeding the pigs in Ibambi, DRCongo

He was inquisitive, bright and friendly early on, loving his little friends in our Cameroonian village. He spoke in 2-3 different languages at different points. He was adding and subtracting numbers about the time he began speaking. He wanted to give away his shoes at age 6 to a Kenyan boy who was barefoot at church. And for several years after the above picture was taken, we lost him to regression. He was struggling behind a foggy veil of illness. He had a long list of labels, each one leading us to new doctors and therapists. God took us back to our home in Congo, a place without any specialists or therapists, one of the most sickly places on earth (ebola? malaria?) and there He healed James. An unlikely restoration. On the GAPS healing protocol for 18 months, our inquisitive, friendly son re-emerged.

And his healing continued over the next couple years. The kid who once was told he could not catch a ball with two hands, was playing on the high school baseball team and catching fly balls. The kid who once was told he may not live independently, went off to summer camp and a college internship. The kid who refused to be touched, asked for hugs. The kid who had no relationship with his siblings developed a strong leadership and care for them (not everyday!). The kid with the photographic memory of Old Testament books, began to seek a personal relationship with God and found peace he desperately needed.

It is no coincidence that 22 is my favorite number, that James was born in 2002, that he graduates in 2020 as a person who loves numbers. So celebrate with us, all you friends and family far and wide! James graduates high school a year early with a 4.2 GPA, 7 AP classes and 1 college class under his belt, National Merit Commended Scholar, a Duke TiP Scholar, with a 35 ACT score, a perfect 800 on his SAT Math II, Top 5% of his class, after winning Chess Championships and many math/science competitions, with a full-tuition award to an amazing university…

But weep tears of gratitude with us too, in worship that God has worked redemption and restoration in James’ heart, soul and body, preparing him for good works to come!
God still moves mountains.
God still accomplishes the impossible.
He still sets the captives free.

“If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.” -Psalm 139:9-10 NIV

Good Friday Meditation

21After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. 23One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, 24so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out.
And it was night.

—John 13:21-30 ESV

A few years ago, our pastor in Texas preached a whole sermon around this last sentence, “And it was night.” I was amazed how much he pulled out of that, which I don’t recall exactly now, but was along the lines of these:

  • For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. (1 Thessalonians 5:7 ESV)
  • This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (I John 1:5 ESV)
  • But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. (Matt 24:43 ESV)

Anyway, Tim Keller recently (on Psalm 11, with many of the same ideas here) reminded me of the time of waiting between Jesus’ betrayal and resurrection, and I connected the two in a new way, and considered an application to our times.

The night surrounding the betrayal of Jesus was dark —physically, morally, and spiritually. And now, as we await the celebration of the His resurrection on Sunday, we have an opportunity to consider what that must have been like for the disciples to endure. They believed in Jesus, but didn’t know at the time how it would turn out.

Just as we sit here, in the middle of this pandemic, with little idea how things will turn out. We try to do the right thing, but that isn’t always rewarded. We miss things we depend upon in our daily lives, and regulations seem to just keep changing, as different authorities try to figure out the best course through this time.

But despite the fact that the disciples didn’t know that Sunday was coming (though they were told), it was coming, and it came. God did not abandon them, and He won’t abandon us now. The end of this pandemic will come, though we don’t know how, or when, or at what cost. And we know that on the other side of it, God will still be good.

I find it amazing that the Spanish/Swine flu of 1918-1920 (described in great detail here) hasn’t been talked about much, for two reasons. First, I think it amazing that we have lost this very relevant history. There were some 500 million cases, and some 50 million deaths.  COVID-19, as of today, seems to have about 1.6 million cases, and less than 100 thousand (0.1 million) deaths. I don’t mean at all to belittle the suffering many people are going through; I know this is very hard on many people —we are not yet sick, but under isolation orders, and we know many are worse off. But I wonder if we would panic as much, if we thought through the fact that only 100 years ago, there was a much more deadly influenza, and we got through that one.

The second reason I find current ignorance of the Spanish/Swine flu of 1918-1920 interesting is because of what that ignorance says about it. Yes, people died. And yes, it was horrible. And yes, today people are dying, and it is horrible. But one century later, no one remembers that horror. Will our current horror, as much as we feel it today, be remembered in 2120? Again, I don’t mean to belittle the pain and grief that any of us are going through, but I find these things give me perspective.

Anyway as we move from Good Friday to Easter together, let’s take some time to grieve our losses (for they are many), feel the pain, and process it in perspective. We can’t see the other side of this thing yet, but we know it is there. And we may not feel God’s goodness now, but we know that He is good,  and that we will feel that goodness again, some day. Let us pray to trust Him in the mean time, with full assurance that Sunday is on it’s way.

Just a blast from my past, with particular relevance to today

2019

Remembering what God did in 2019…

The year we returned to Africa.

The year we were lovingly sent.

When James won the high school chess championship, got his driver’s license, started senior year, took entrance exams & applied to college.

When Joel made 1st chair percussionist, started high school and made the school play.

When Anna made the top orchestra at All-Region as the only homeschooler in 500 kids, when she made Triple Crown Memory Master, made middle school volleyball team & started Jr. High.

The year we saw James grow in obedience to conviction.

The year Joel made his public testimony to follow Jesus.

The year Anna began programming computers and grilling her Dad with a long list of Spiritual and scientific questions.

2019. The year Kent & I celebrated 20 hard-won years of marriage. Victory of steadfastness.

The year Avengers & Star Wars finally ended.

Ships, Patience, and Long Longing

Several of our dear Texas friends helped us catalog our shipment to move here to Cameroon, carefully tucking and packing things knowing the great journey they would travel. That was in late May and early June. Several asked, “When will this arrive in Africa?” I would reply, “Hopefully by Christmas.” Their shock was evident. We don’t have a culture that breeds patience. It is foreign.

When we arrived in Yaoundé July 8, our boxes had already been trucked across Texas up to North Carolina, where the JAARS office was packing them into wooden crates to be loaded into a sea freight container. When we sat in Orientation classes July 24, we were excited to hear the shipment had left NC and was due into port on this side of the Atlantic as early as September 12! That sounded too good to be true, so I mentally added a month. If it could arrive before our birthdays at the end of October, THAT would be a great birthday! They added a comment that it’s important to get shipping containers through customs well before the holiday rush.

In September, we began to really start longing in earnest for our belongings. Joel needs his own scientific calculator for math class. It’s coming on the shipment. Anna needs a longer skirt for Chapel day. We have one on the shipment. We need a board game other than a deck of cards to play when the power goes out! I need my cooking pots & pans, the sewing machine, the piano, the mixer, etc… Multiple times per day I think of something I have – but don’t have here – and don’t want to buy again for 1 month’s use (IF I could find it in a store!) I always thought of myself as a friend to the simple life, fond of minimalism, but feeding and caring for 3 teenagers for months on end is not so simple out of a few suitcases.

In October, we learned that the shipment had been delayed 3-4 weeks, but was almost to Cameroon. And in November, we learned of it’s safe arrival in port! But it can take 2 weeks to process customs paperwork. Then last week we learned that initial paperwork was rejected. No idea when it will actually make it here…

Why is it so hard not to have a sewing machine? A Halloween costume? Wrapping paper? These are American things that our African brothers and sisters live without. I find myself longing. I have been longing now for a very long time. Even when it may be broken or ruined when it all arrives! I have been pitiful enough to read those packing lists for fun…

The longing in my heart grows so strong for these physical things. And I know the Scriptures say, “Do not store up for yourselves earthly treasure, where moths and rust destroy or thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

Have I put hope & joy and comfort on earthly things that perish, spoil and fade?

This morning in my study of the apostle Peter I read the phrase: “…when God waited patiently for Noah to build the ark.” I ever thought about God waiting patiently. How long was that? No one knows exactly, but Biblical scholars all estimate somewhere between 40-100 years. Years! God’s patience is beyond my imagination. I’m having a hard time waiting for even 6 months…

As I marveled at his patience, and my lack of it, He spoke,

“Do you long for Me, like you long for this shipment?”

Wow!

Do I long for Jesus’ arrival like I long for my ship’s arrival?

Do I long for heaven as my true Home like I long for these cement walls to feel like home?

Transition is hard.

It is rootless wandering.

Challenging me to build on the Rock of Ages.

The joy of every longing heart. ?

– – – – – – – – – –

What are you longing for? Is it eternal? Or can it perish, spoil or fade?

Let us set our “minds on things above, not on earthly things.”
Colossians 3:2

Last Call

This is Joel and I sitting on the couch that helped throwing out back out a couple weeks ago, now on the curb. We tried selling it but couldn’t. We tried giving it away but couldn’t do that either. So now it sits ready for bulk trash pickup. I seriously wanted some kind of vengeance on this couch but I guess I’ll just have to be satisfied with this.

Now that our shipment to North Carolina (going on to Cameron by sea freight) has left, I’m feeling exhausted and ready to crash. So I thought a few selfies with Joel and various “soon to be trash” items was appropriate. Yes, this is a large TV (or sewing, dishes, etc, as we used it) cabinet:

And on the other side of Joel, you can see the animal chair (used to be Abby’s favorite spot, but it looks ripe for a cat roost, as well (or a roost for several cats, or anyone else that doesn’t mind dog hair embedded in their furniture –which excludes most people, apparently):

Anyway. This isn’t supposed to be depressing, that’s just how I feel being this exhausted. And having these reminders that I seem to be willing to put up with furniture that must other people consider junk. But maybe someone will beat the garbageman to one of these items and it will find a new home before taking up space in a landfill.

Anyway, on more fun tasks like to taxes (yes, I know it’s June…), files (that didn’t make the NC shipment, for some reason), and prepping other stuff for local storage. 😉

The Partnership Process

One cold, foggy February morning I rolled out of bed asking God how to pray. He told me to ask not for one, but TWO new financial partners to join our team today.
I’m stubborn. I refused. It was too much to ask.

The flu had knocked our family flat for over 2 weeks, and I was feeling like I hadn’t accomplished any “real work” in several days. There was no way two new families would start giving when I hadn’t written letters, had coffee dates or blogged anything new in more than a week!

Oh how gently our God teaches us! I knew the still small voice that replied to my stubborn refusal and feelings of unworthiness…

“Is building your team about your work?? Or is it about my work?”

I bit my tongue. He was right, of course. This whole raising-missionary-support thing was not about me, and what I could do. I reluctantly prayed God would add two new families to our team that day, in spite of our illness and inactivity – in spite of the fact that not one new household had joined our team in 3 weeks. I wish I could say all doubt was gone…

God seems to delight in showing his power in “impossible” situations. And despite my weak faith & stubborn doubts, through the fog of flu, we got not one, but two Email notices stating that a new gift had been made to our account! In both cases, they had given in the past week, but the Emails posted that same day.

Oh me of little faith.

I haven’t met an American who likes to talk about money, and we have met several young people with desire to serve overseas, who cannot stomach developing a partnership base for their expenses. Kent’s first assignment overseas was a volunteer position with all expenses paid. He was relieved not to bother with funding. Unfortunately, on his return to the US he was grieved that many friends had forgotten where he was & the work he was doing. Many of the friends who said they would be praying, had forgotten. This was not partnership, and it showed. Paul says, “Did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel to you free of charge?” 2 Cor 11:7

It is an obedience filled with faith in God that has us once again building our team to move overseas. It is equally an obedience filled with faith in God that has our partners investing in this work. It is almost a helpless feeling to give up control and throw your entire financial future on the mercy of God. (I grant that none of us actually have control over our financial futures, and all of us depend on the mercy of God. Maybe it is the illusion of control over money “we earned” that we are giving up.)

I learn so slowly! It is a lesson I have learned & relearned & relearned. Patiently, God is teaching us week by week to trust in HIM. He is our Provider. This is his work, his people, his plan, his timing, and for years to come we will be able to look back to this season of partnership development with a confidence that God is the One sending us out. Our own work could never accomplish it.

When our Wycliffe financial statement comes, I am always humbled and in awe of the amazing team of partners who give sacrificially, so we can go. We could never repay their generosity, and it isn’t really ours to repay anyway as it is given to God. Instead we pray for our partners’ families, for their churches, for their jobs, for their health. It is a strong connection. We long to catch up and visit in person whenever possible. We grieve when they grieve. We rejoice when they rejoice. This is partnership.

And I feel like I take all our partners with us to Africa. Their prayers, their gifts are traveling on the back of a motorcycle into the rainforest with Kent to develop an alphabet where people don’t have one. These prayers, these gifts give out that first alphabet chart that makes one of the poorest men on the planet light up saying, “My language is a REAL language?

These prayers, these gifts carry me into cross-cultural small group ministry where we invest in the local church – whatever weak state it may be in (who can wonder at that without access to God’s Word in a language that speaks clearly?) These prayers & gifts have been with me in times of great danger, in malaria, in rabies, in many many moves, and dark days; and equally in the victories and celebrations as God’s Truth gets translated and then published and then used to transform & heal the broken-hearted.

These are not my successes. They are made possible by a collaborative act of faith, of worship for a Mighty God.
These are his successes.  This is partnership.

Sustained in the Beautiful Hard

The first time I heard it was Sept 6, 1999. In the wee hours of the morning through the jet lag as newlyweds who naively landed ourselves on assignment in Kenya, the dawn was alive with the exotic melodies of birds. Their songs heralded the beginning of a fresh new day, bathing it in beautiful anticipation, proclaiming God’s glory to all. Through all our years in Kenya, Uganda and Congo these morning songs were a constant joy.

Landing in Cameroon two weeks ago, I subconsciously expected everything to be similar to our life in Congo. Sure enough, some of our favorite things about our previous home – morning birds, huge juicy mangoes, choirs singing in church in colorful fabrics – were similar. Oh how I missed those morning songs!! Cameroon has the same freshly roasted peanuts, red clay roads, long handshakes and strong hospitality. To focus on all the beautiful things, I am tempted to reflect on our Spring Break trip as a fabulous success.

But that would not be the whole story. It was certainly not my success. And it would skip the testimony of God’s power in our lives this past two weeks to stop there. Let us never skip an opportunity to tell of his mighty works even when it costs us something. So we will share the detailed truth that it may bring God even more glory.
Each day several friends ask, “How was Cameroon?”
The short story is: “It was beautiful. And it was hard.”
Vibrantly beautiful and
terribly hard
at the same time.
Complex.

Spiritual opposition often feels like all the cards are stacked against you. Nothing went very smoothly, and God intervened over and over and over to keep us moving forward. He sustained us. Our first obstacle was the denial of visas that left uncertainty over our departure like a cloud until God miraculously delivered new visas the exact day we needed them. Secondly, the 24 hours of flights did not always include foods we could all eat, but God brought a flight attendant to bring us special treats from First Class.

Upon arrival in Cameroon, we realized we had left our Yellow Fever vaccination cards in America. They are required for entry into many African countries and some will even vaccinate you in the airport if you don’t have your yellow card! We were stuck at the mercy of the health department officials. They could have refused us entry or forced us into shots then and there. God gave us favor with one of the officials who decided against protocol to accept our photo images of yellow cards on Kent’s laptop. (Later one woman would try to stop us from leaving the country on the same grounds, but pass us because of the work we do.) God’s intervention for the win!

We settled into our guesthouse rooms and crashed. We had not been prepared for the heat and humidity. We knew there would not be air conditioning. What we didn’t know is that March is the hottest month of the year. So 90-degree days don’t sound too hot, until you factor in 95% humidity with a ‘Real Feel’ of 117 degrees! We were sweating through 3-4 sets of clothes each day, which didn’t help us hydrate after the airplanes. We couldn’t drink enough and we had to focus on filtering enough water for the 5 of us to keep up. The heat sapped our energy and melted our brains, putting us in a fog. Sleeping under mosquito nets seemed to make the heat worse. God kept our filter working quickly, gave us a fridge that worked, a fan to sleep by, and sustained us in a way that doesn’t make sense to me even in retrospect.

Within 48 hours, I was not recovering energy or health from jet lag, I was actually getting worse each day knocked down with the flu. Kent left for his conference out of town. While he was away, I was not sleeping much at night. I think I was allergic to the dusty, lumpy mattress. One night, my lungs began to fill to the point where I felt out of breath to walk a few steps. I am familiar with walking pneumonia, and knew I was in trouble. God intervened. One of my friends was taking me shopping the next morning and I asked her to help me buy an inhaler and allergy meds. She just ‘happened’ to have meds and an extra new inhaler sitting in her house that another missionary had given away! Within 2-3 days with the meds and inhaler my lungs cleared and I could breathe again. I haven’t had allergic asthma like that in maybe 10 years, but it hunted me down on this trip.

Kent’s conference was productive and fruitful, but not without difficulty. He was staying in hotel that some days had water and some days not. God got him through and got him home. He returned safely back to us after 4 days and promptly came down with the flu. For a few days we were both down at the same time. I had a horrible stomach ache that wouldn’t go away. God gently reminded me what the enemy was trying to steal, kill and destroy on our trip. He would love us to call it ‘ruined’ and only remember the ‘bad’. We gathered our family to sing and pray. My stomach ache left and never returned. It was a turning point in my full recovery. Kent had enough of the dusty, lumpy mattress and got a ride to bargain for a new one. God granted him favor with the shop and he bought a wonderful new mattress for 70% of the asking price! We started to sleep so much better!

Through the fog of heat and illness, we were trying to tour available houses for our move this summer, but our time and energy reserves were so low. One hour out of the house required two more recovering. This was made only more complicated by the fact that there were no known houses available big enough for our family. The unrest in outlying areas had many displaced colleagues moving into the city in the past years, so there is a housing shortage. We met one Cameroonian colleague who has 25 family members staying with him! We also had no car, the heat was unbearable and we needed to walk everywhere in the muddy clay. Hour by hour, God gave us the strength beyond understanding to get something done.

Our last 2 days in Cameroon were wonderful. We had strength again. And good friends had planned to come and spend time with us. We hadn’t lived in the same country in 14 years. Sweet fellowship. Time to smell flowers, dry laundry on the line, enjoy the first spring mangoes. In the midst of a minefield of obstacles, James, Joel and Anna enjoyed everything! They enjoyed the foods they remembered from their younger years. They enjoyed meeting new friends and attending their new school. Teachers let them jump right in. Joel chased agama lizards and played in the dirt with the little kids. Anna picked her favorite tropical flowers. James immediately clicked with other teenagers who “get him” as a missionary kid. So much glory. So much beauty. The calm before the return storm.

Our last night in Cameroon, I had a horrific nightmare. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been tormented by a dream like that. It had zero connection to reality. It was pure evil. We fought back with prayer and I began to sing praises to Jesus, which our enemy hates. God carried me through. He is victorious!

Our return home was odd in that every single airport was frought with more obstacles. It seemed that we would never make it home. There was a 2-hour delay leaving Cameroon due to trouble with the fuel truck (?!). There was a strike in Brussels for air traffic controllers, so we boarded and sat on the tarmac another 2.5 hours. This meant we missed our connecting flight in Washington DC by 5 minutes and were stranded. All the while, Anna’s health continued to decline. She was sick to her stomach more and more often and hadn’t eaten much in 2-3 days. We were rescheduled, overnighted in Houston and finally made it home (without bags) the next day. The fingerprints of Grace followed us. Airport personnel cleaning up barf for us. A stranger giving us a plastic bag when we needed one. The airport shop having a ‘sale’ on Tshirts and toothbrushes when our kids needed something else to wear. A hotel with free breakfast enough to feed our boys, and free airport shuttles that run at 1am. God’s grace followed us. (Anna has a parasite and is recovering well at home.)

He sustained us. We would not have survived this trip without his help. We not only survived, we accomplished almost all our goals for the two weeks! So how was our trip?

The verse that comes to mind is Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 4:8-
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed.
We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.
We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God.
We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.
Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus
so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.”

If you read this all the way to the end, I pray you have seen the life of Jesus in this story. I pray this post is like the beautiful birds’ song which proclaims God’s glory to all who will listen. If He can comfort, guide, protect and sustain me when I feel like I can’t breathe in a foreign country with flu and malarial mosquitoes at 117 degrees… He can comfort, guide, protect and sustain you where you are too. He sustains in the beautiful hard.

“But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.
Psalm 3:3