one sharpie at a time

THE THING ABOUT being a shy, picky pianist is that it’s hard to practice your art. Either you can’t find a good sound (plastic keys just don’t feel right), or you get roped into entertaining people (not my forte). You just want to be alone with a Steinway, dang it!



Faced with such a predicament, the shy, picky pianist must find other media of expression.

Trying new forms of art is awkward at first. As you try to plié and sauté, your muscles long for the ease with which your fingers ran along the keys. As you think about starting a poem, your mind wanders to memories of getting lost with the piano for hours with no one to please.

So when you’re asked to create a character named Sofi who is going to tell stories to the children at one of your programs, you panic. You frantically Google-search “How to make a puppet” and immediately wish you hadn’t as you recall childhood arts-and-crafts trauma.

Why do people keep asking me to do things I suck at? you think.

That’s when you realize something: The reason you “suck” at something is that you haven’t had enough practice. The reason you can play piano is not because you’re Asian, as your friends in Colombia like to joke, but because you practiced every day for 12 years of your life (well, minus Sundays and holidays, since your family took rest pretty seriously).

So you grab the nearest pen and paper and go to work. You can’t give them a Mona Lisa, but you can offer your 4th-grade-best. As your friend Jack told you in college, anyone can draw – you just need to notice things and practice.

Soon what had been a source of stress becomes a stress-reliever. Not only are you supporting community development, but you are also learning a new skill. You’re relieved to learn that what matters in the end is not the end result but the purpose behind it: to help kids understand their Creator’s love.

Plus, you get to color for work.


to be here

THE MOMENT I STEPPED out of the Barranquilla airport, I could feel my excitement slowly drip away like the sweat on my skin. How am I going to make it in this oppressive heat and humidity?!

Before coming to Colombia I thought I knew what ministry of presence entailed: show up to places, sit and listen to people, participate and defer leadership opportunities to local community members, surrender the need to produce. And I have been doing all of this.

At El Tamarindo in December a few weeks before their unlawful eviction. This was an example of a time when I was really happy to be there but struggled to stay present because of the heat.

At El Tamarindo in December a few weeks before their unlawful eviction. An example of when I was really happy to be there but struggled to stay awake because of the heat.

What I didn’t expect was how hard it would be. If you know me, you’re probably scoffing because you know me as a workaholic. But it hasn’t been hard because I feel unproductive or aimless. It’s been hard because of immediate, physical reasons. I feel hot, sweaty … or I feel cold because somebody thought it’d be fine to turn the AC down to 16ºC.

Physical discomfort. How quickly it can weaken my resolve! It magnifies hunger and fatigue and distracts me from the present moment, especially when it already takes so much energy for me to concentrate on what’s being said around me. In those moments, I fluctuate between frustration and shame as my physical needs battle my desire to stay engaged.

I’m getting a small sense of what many people in the world must face every day. I wonder if some of the folks I see each week experience the same tension. It’s showing me how truly important holistic service is. You can send the best teacher to a school, but how can a kid concentrate in class when their stomach is growling and they’re wondering if it’ll be filled when they get home?


At El Tamarindo. Even as her eviction was being confirmed that very moment, Marisol gave me this.

One thing I love about going to El Pueblo is that the leader almost always provides snacks and juice at the end of each Bible study. I don’t know if she pays out-of-pocket or receives a stipend from her church. But somehow she makes sure everyone who comes is fed. Most people are elderly and likely on a pension, which I’m guessing is not a lot of money. By opening her home and offering food, she’s meeting needs on a spiritual, social and physical level.

I’m still learning the ministry of presence. Sometimes I do it well; sometimes I suck at it. But I’m learning that the way to do it is not to ignore or vilify my physical discomfort. It is not eliminating all distractions or fake-smiling through heat-induced drowsiness.

Being present means staying even when you want to go. It means sitting next to a 90-year-old and feeling each drop of sweat on my body and drinking pineapple juice together after Bible study.

It means choosing to be there, to be nowhere, to be here.

laughing through dissonance

FOUR O’CLOCK. THE teacher must be on her way, I thought. Still, to ease my North-American anxiety towards punctuality, I went to find the woman in charge.DSCN1132

“Mabel, is Shirley coming?” I asked.

“No, she couldn’t make it today,” came the reply. “Maria can help you.”

I never found out who Maria was. When I returned to the patio, girls and boys were already forming a semicircle of chairs in preparation for their weekly Bible lesson. Not wanting to lose their attention, I quickly took my seat. The children returned my gaze, eager and ready to listen. That brief moment was so full of potential I didn’t want to speak. I knew that once I opened my mouth, my accent would betray my act of competence.

That is exactly what happened. The more I tried to engage them, stumbling over words and executing ideas as they came, the more restless the children became. The older ones chatted among themselves while the three-year-olds just looked confused. I literally breathed a sigh of relief when five o’clock finally arrived.

Yet I could hardly keep from laughing. Admittedly, my eyes burned a little, but it was too funny to cry. Within minutes I’d gone from being the silent teacher’s aide to being the unprepared sub. I could imagine kids telling their moms about this random lady from los Estados Unidos who tried to get them to sing, speak English, and act out the Nativity of Jesus. Or kids not recalling anything because it’d been so chaotic.

There were numerous moments during that long hour when I could have lost it. I could’ve given into perfectionism, counting every smirk as a mark of failure. I could’ve pretended to be ignorant, letting the kids run wild as an act of surrender. I could’ve chosen anger, blaming under-communication, the teacher, my basic Spanish skills, the children … I could have, because I have chosen these responses in the past.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about surviving in Colombia as a non-Spanish-speaking foreigner, it’s this: laugh at myself.

Because locals are going to laugh at me whether or not they know me.

Because I’m often early, even when I’m running late.

Because meeting times will change and I’ll only find out if I call to confirm the meeting.

Because people always ask, Where are you from and Where are you really from, due to my accent and appearance.

Because my heart still races when I cross the street.

Because if I keep living as I did in the United States, with the same expectations towards social norms, time commitments, race relations, and traffic laws, I would probably become frustrated, resentful and isolated.

I don’t dismiss the challenges of culture shock or the emotions that come with it. I certainly would appreciate hearing fewer jokes or stereotypes about my ethnicity. But I’ve come to see each experience of dissonance as an opportunity – an opportunity to appreciate difference, to examine assumptions, to laugh.

This post originally appeared on NEXT Church, a network of leaders within the Presbyterian Church (USA):

el buen pastor y las ovejitas

I WISH I had a tape recorder so you could hear how enthusiastic and cute los niños were during class.

Every Tuesday I help out with the children’s program in a neighborhood called Por Fin. So far, I serve as the silent wingwoman, nodding along to the teacher’s lesson, rewarding correct answers with smiles, and attempting to quell deviance with prolonged stares. While we do our thing, a group of women (mostly moms of the kids) have Bible study in the back courtyard with the effervescent Pastora Flor.

This week we learned about el Buen Pastor (thIMG_1158e Good Shepherd). I love that in Spanish the word for “pastor” and “shepherd” are the same. We learned that God, like a good shepherd, protects us, las ovejitas. He knows what his sheep need – apparently his sheep need toys. He leads his sheep to good pastures.

Yesterday my body went to war with itself. Burning with heat, I laid in bed for about 9 hours straight. It took me 15 minutes to call my coworkers to notify them of my absence because I kept falling asleep between each attempt.

I wonder how old you have to be before you stop wanting your mom when you’re sick. Thankfully, my host mom came home after a few hours and helped me out. My host sister also told me to put on more clothes to sweat out the fever – duh! From then on, I was on the road to recovery.

For the whole day I felt so helpless, like a little sheep. But just knowing I was being cared for by my host mom brought so much comfort. The medicine, the clementine, the wet cloths for my forehead, the shoulder rub – these were the green pastures I needed.

By the way, whether you’re in a Chinese-, English- or Spanish-speaking Christian community, you can bet that the go-to Sunday school answers will always be some form of ¡Dios! or ¡Jesús!

does God know spanglish?

ON SUNDAY I sang with the praise team at church. The team consists of four other young women and the music director/pianist, Osman. He works his magic on the synth to bust out beats and melodies to accompany the songs. It’s impressive.

181015 coro con osmanA decade of music ministry could not keep my voice from shaking as I shared Psalm 121:1-2. Memorizing those verses was my solution to Osman’s request for me to pray. I wondered if the congregants could make out the beautiful words beneath my North American accent.

181015 coroI started to sing. My voice sounded like gravel from a month of underuse. My left ear, still plugged from last week’s beach outing, made it hard to know if I was on pitch. Still I was honored to have the opportunity to serve in such a tangible way – and happy to sing one of my new favorites, Renuévame (see below).

As we sang, I really wanted to lose myself in the moment, eyes closed, arms outstretched, just as I’ve done so many times before. But something held me back.

Music ministry is a struggle for me. On the one hand, music has always been the most intimate way for me to connect with God. I love singing. I love running my fingers along the keys or the strings as an offering of praise. I love being able to express myself truly and completely before God without saying a word.

But put me in front of a crowd, and the pressure to perform, to impress, to be perfect, permeates even the purest of intentions. Add on the challenge of speaking and singing another language, and I become very self-conscious.

What held me back yesterday was the fear of inauthenticity. It felt insincere to offer wholehearted worship in a language I can barely comprehend. I felt like I didn’t have the right to do that. And I didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself than I already did as the only English-speaking-Chinese-American in the room.

If I could turn back the clock, I would’ve plucked that fear out by the roots and chucked it far away. I would’ve replaced it with the assurance that the ultimate value of a song offering is not in how it sounds but in the One to whom it is offered.

Now I remember
how the Bible talks about the nations worshiping God,
how John saw people from “all tribes and peoples and languages” standing before the throne of God (Revelation 7:9-10),
how the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, enabled people to declare the wonders of God in their own native language (Acts 2).

God understands even my broken Spanish.

After service, I was told to keep the black outfit I had borrowed for the morning. “You’ll need it for next time,” they said.

I’m glad I get to try again. Until then I’ll be listening to Renuévame on repeat. ^^ (The singing starts at 0:40.)