(Read about Part 1 here.)
I went back a few days after the fall festival with some friends from church. We tracked down Hela’s apartment and discovered was a large group of Burmese refugees living in the apartment complex. We started going over there to meet the women. There were more children without good shoes or coats. We brought them the clothes they needed and connected them with the nearby church whose fall festival we had attended, a tiny church with about a dozen members who still feed hundreds every Monday night. Our larger church had begun to partner with the smaller one, which is why we were at the fall festival the Saturday afternoon we meet the Burmese refugees.
Hela and her friends were Karen Hill Tribers, part of an ethnic group that extends throughout Burma and Thailand. There are members of several other hill tribes who fled ethnic cleansing in Burma. At the time, I knew only what I had seen of hill tribers in Thailand and what I heard from some missionaries about the courageous antics of the Free Burma Rangers. I had no idea how many refugees there were living in Austin. I learned as much as I could at night through my research on the internet. My increasing visits to the refugee families were constant sources of joy to me.
By December of that year, perhaps six weeks after we first met the refugees, Jonathan and I were driving to Fredericksburg. Noelle was in her car seat, turned around for the first time in her life since she had just turned one. (This was in the good old days, like 2007, before children had to be strapped down in a back-facing car seat until they go to college. I loved the first time either of my daughters realized that the car goes forward, that there was a world out there that they could see coming.) Her squeals of joy peppered the conversation we had as we re-evaluated where we had been and where we were going with our lives.
The stakes felt really high in that conversation. In all my years of schooling, I don’t think I’d ever had a semester as hard as the one I had just finished. I was in the middle of a difficult doctoral program and I had taken the spring semester off to be with my daughter. Eight gloriously laidback months were followed by a fall semester so hard I cried before classes even began.
I was both teaching undergrads and attending my own graduate classes. I had absolutely no idea how to be a working mom. I was wracked with guilt at leaving my precious baby with a babysitter four mornings a week, but also glad to go back to work I adored. Staying ahead at my job, in my classes and as a mother was making me into a frenetic, driven person. Everything was falling apart, me most of all.
I still remember our arguments that semester as some of the worst of our lives. I pushed us to do things I thought we ought to do. We were parents, after all, and even if our daughter’s hobbies included blowing raspberries and sticking her finger up her nose, raising a child in the way she should go starts at birth.
We attended two church small groups, one in English, one in Spanish, every single week. There was cooking for the small groups, elaborate meals I convinced myself I had to make so no one would judge me as a working mom by my domestic skills. I thought we should be teaching classes at church. I worried about missing our friends; I would have planned something every night if it were up to me.
I would have pushed us even harder if my wonderful husband had not set up some serious boundaries.
I was convinced we needed to help the Burmese refugees. He was equally convinced we had more than enough on our plates. Exhausted and overwhelmed, we played hookie in Fredericksburg to escape for the day. Our daughter babbled and giggled at the trees rushing by. We talked over each of the activities we had committed to and tried to unravel our hectic lives. We unpacked dreams for the past that we had folded away for safekeeping years ago, dreams of turning our lives inside out for ministry before we had chosen secular careers. We used economic development terms we had not talked about since moving to Austin.
I remember coming up with the title “Hill Country Hill Tribers” just before we reached Fredericksburg. By then, we knew our lives had already been rearranged by these Burmese friends. Though we could have chosen to walk away, the door was too wide open, the draw too strong. Neither of us could get past Hela’s daughter and her cold feet at the fall festival. I heard myself saying I would give up some things. Whatever it took, actually. I knew already we had been preparing for this moment for years. The coincidences were too neat, the narrative arc of our lives too perfect, for us to ignore.
That doesn’t mean the path was easy.
Next week: How our friendships turned into a non-profit and how my life was turned inside out in the process.