It may not have been the very first night. I suspect the first night in Maputo we were so exhausted that we didn’t hear a thing after traveling from Chicago to London to Johannesburg, South Africa, to Maputo, Mozambique, with 3 children, 14 tubs, 6 carryons, and countless goodbyes.
But I remember the first night that we heard the drums. We were told that these were the drums of the witchdoctor. As I sat on the porch, and listened to the sound in the distance, it felt as though we had traveled back in time or even to another world–which, in a sense, we had done.
I wondered what the drums meant. What exactly did a witchdoctor do in Maputo, Mozambique in 1996? Were the drums sending a message? Was it about us? Were they beating out,
“Let’s meet to go slaughter the new missionaries at 2am”?
I had no idea, but at the time I was not afraid. It felt like a mysterious adventure, and I felt that God was with us.
Looking back sometimes I wonder at myself. I am not a brave person. I am a shy person afraid of many things. I can only explain going to Mozambique as God’s giving me peace and strength for what I was supposed to do at the time. I know we made many mistakes, but I would not trade the experience for anything.
Maybe I need to take a lesson from my old self. If I could survive moving to Mozambique and living there for 3 years, which was both wonderful and extremely difficult, maybe I can face today’s challenges. I just need to trust. Maybe you can too.
Maybe I should destroy my art work if I don’t like it. I heard that Picasso slashed some of his paintings into shreds with his palette knife because they didn’t measure up to his standards for himself (1).
I’m not quite as intense as Picasso, but I’m also not quite as relaxed as Andy Warhol, though I aspire to be. He’s what he said:
“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art” (2).
This month I am showing my art work in two different group exhibitions in Louisville, Kentucky, and it’s always inspiring to me to see the work of so many different artists.
Looking at all of the art work on display, I sometimes wonder how other artists choose what to submit for these invitational juried exhibitions. (Artists send photos of their work to the gallery and hope to be accepted into the show.)
I have three categories of work, at least. Work that I love, work I’m unsure about, and work that I don’t like. I have a closet full of such pieces, work that didn’t turn out so great, and you’ll never see it, unless maybe you’re one of my kids sorting my stuff after I die.
Sometimes, I know that a painting or a drawing is bad, and I won’t show it. Other times I have trouble being objective about my own work. At those times, I try to think like Warhol. Let everyone else decide if it’s good. While they are deciding, I’ll just keep making even more art.
“And I have caught a pregnant bluehead lizard that has already had one egg. Soon it will have more eggs.”
–Joseph Brooks, October 21, 1996
When we first went to Mozambique, our son Joseph was 6. As I sort through old emails, I came across a letter that he dictated to Martin to be typed into an email to send to his friends back home. It reads like this:
“Everywhere you walk, there is sand. Most of the time it does not rain even though there are dark clouds. We have tall thorns around the whole compound as a fence.
“It’s more exciting here because every day you have friends to play with, and you don’t have to go far to find any. Most of the time we play marbles or play with a hacky sack or we play soccer which is really called football here.
“And I have caught a pregnant bluehead lizard that has already had one egg. Soon it will have more eggs.
“And also, there was this hole in the flower bed, and I accidentally shot a marble, and it went down the hole. As I was trying to dig it up to get it, a head popped out of the hole. I thought it was a snake at first, but then my gardener told me that it was a frog. So I ran and got a jar and caught it while my gardener watched it. And I still have the toad and the lizard. The frog is as tall as my finger and as wide as my fist.”
Joseph always was, and still is, a happy person. Maybe it’s because he focused on the toads. Too many times in life we are expecting a snake, and God gives us a toad instead, and it’s wonderful, but I tend to just say, “Whew! That was close.” I forget about it, and go on looking for the next snake. Instead, like Joseph, I should run and get a jar, and celebrate the toads! How many times has God given me a toad when I was expecting a snake, but I just move on, forgetting all of the good times God has given, and all of the times I have been rescued, and I go on looking for the next snake to bite me, instead of being happy about the all of the toads.
I asked if any of the children wanted to accept Jesus and be baptized, and they all started shaking their heads “Yes”!
“Wait a minute,” I thought, “let me make sure they are saying what I think they are saying.”
You see, I was still learning Portuguese, and Portuguese is also a second language for these children. They speak Changaan at home, but school is taught in Portuguese because Mozambique had been colonized by the Portuguese. I had these illustrated Bible story posters with the story written in Portuguese on the back of the big, colorful illustration. I would practice reading the stories in Portuguese, and the other missionaries told me my pronunciation was good, so they asked me to teach the children on Wednesday nights. The truth is, I could read the words and pronounce them well, but at times I didn’t comprehend what my own mouth was saying as I read the story to the children.
Sometimes having good pronunciation can get you into trouble because people think you have better language skills than you actually do. The other night for example, two babies came to class with their older siblings, who looked to me to be about 6, and just as the class was starting, a baby toddled out into the dark night. I tried to ask the children to go get her, but in my panic, my high school French popped into my mind instead of Portuguese, and the children all just looked at me blankly! It’s as if my brain has a foreign language switch, and when I’m panicked, trying to think of a word in the new language I’m learning, instead, my brain supplies the word from a language I haven’t studied for years, sometimes a word that I wouldn’t be able to think of if I were trying! I’m curious as to whether this happens to other people, or is my brain broken?
After I realized that I had used French instead of Portuguese, I corrected myself, and the big brother went to retrieve the baby. After the story ended, I asked if any of the children wanted to accept Jesus and be baptized.
They all started nodding their heads and saying, “Yes!” I was super excited, but not quite sure they understood. It would have been great to just baptize them all and report the wonderful results to our supporters; but instead, I questioned them further, finding out that many of them had already been baptized, and things were not exactly as they seemed on the surface.
Most of the time these days, I’m not trying to communicate in a second language, but do I still make the same kind of mistakes? I make a judgement, based on someone’s brief response, not really taking the time to ask questions and make sure they understood what I meant, and maybe I plow forward based on mistaken assumptions, not taking the time to get to know people or listen to them because I have an agenda for them.
Jesus, on the other hand, took the time to walk, talk, and eat with people. He didn’t push an agenda, but he asked what they wanted, sometimes even when the answer seemed obvious. He spent time daily with his disciples, teaching them by example and with stories and conversations. I need to be reminded to slow down and listen to people. It’s not all about my agenda for them. Maybe they don’t need what I think they need, and I won’t know unless I let go of my agenda for them and listen.
Lately I’ve been going through old photos from our time in Mozambique. The photo that this artwork is based on reminded me of an eye-opening experience I had after we first moved to Mozambique, when my daughter was only 3 or 4 years old. We had hired a young mother to help me with the housework and with learning the language and culture. One day she needed to bring her children to work with her, and she brought her little daughter who was the same age as ours, 3 or 4, but strapped onto the little one’s back was a baby! That little one, very much a baby herself, I thought, was expected to bounce that baby and keep her happy while her mommy worked. I couldn’t believe it. I watched as she entered my house, carrying that heavy load, and I worried about the little head bobbing up and down as big sis–tiny big sis– carried her around. The little girl walked through the kitchen, and then she caught sight of my daughter’s bedroom.
At this point I feel the need to say that my kids left so many of their toys behind in the states, and there was very little around Maputo that we could afford to buy for them, or even that they would want when we first moved there. Hannah did not have very many toys compared to her friends back in the states. But when that little toddler entered her room, still with the baby on her back, her eyes got huge! It was as if she had walked into Disneyland. She had apparently never seen so many little girl toys, baby dolls, etc., and she just wanted to play in there all day. That she did, as I recall, occasionally stopping to comfort her in-the-flesh baby sister on her back, as she played with the dolls.
It was another of many such moments in which I realized that I was the rich white American, and my employee’s kids could not imagine living like we did, despite the fact that we felt we had given up so much to move to Mozambique.
I’ve been processing this stuff for years, and I still don’t have many answers. Being ashamed of having more than someone else is not helpful, but I do think we need to struggle with what can be done about income inequality and find ways to be compassionate.
Micah 6 : 8 comes to mind. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
I need to be concerned with justice, mercy, and humility. These three are so needed, now more than ever.
Every day is filled with incredible stress, guilt, and fear. My husband nearly died from an unidentified illness, and I fear for the health and safety of my kids almost all day, every day. It’s easier just to stay on the compound with the other American missionaries, but that’s not why I came. God, help me get through this.
The women here are so strong and persevering. They work incredibly hard everyday, many with absent husbands, caring for children in addition to working a job if they can find one. Most prepare their food over a fire and carry water some distance from a pump. Their lives seem like constant struggle and pain to me, and yet they sing and smile and are so beautiful in their laughter.
I am a pampered child who cannot handle much stress, apparently. Many days I wonder what it would be like to have a nervous breakdown. How can you tell if you’re about to lose it? What are the signs? I can’t talk to anyone about this because they’re all stressed too, and I’m supposed to be a hero to the people back home. What a crock! I’m a wreck. The kids are the only ones who seem to be okay, most of the time. I try to hold it together for them. I keep my inner turmoil hidden. God does help me and carry me through, but I wonder if He will keep us safe. I wonder if all 5 of us will make it back home to Kentucky.
I know that God is good. I see it in nature and in the beauty of children and in the Mozambican people all around me. How can the creator of such beauty not be good? But I also see the suffering around me. Children are dying from cholera all around. I saw my 20 year old brother suffer and die of cancer within a few months. My dad died at age 63, just before retirement, as a result of a car wreck. Life is suffering, beauty, and glory, all mixed together. Sometimes I could hide from that back in Kentucky, but not here in Mozambique. Extreme poverty slaps you in the face as children beg for bread every day; but at night, the stars crowding the sky seem so close you could throw a rock at one and send it crashing down to earth. This beauty is also undeniable.
Looking back in 2019, I did survive 3 years in Mozambique, but one of my teammates did not. He was shot and killed by armed robbers that entered our compound one night. I did not feel free to write about how difficult it was for me back then, but now I am free of the pedestal and the expectations that were put upon me at the time. I don’t know why I am safely back home, and my friend is not. God allows suffering, and He is is good. These truths I have to hold in tension, and probably always will. I hope I can live in such a way as to celebrate the beauty and goodness, and at the same time, maybe I can alleviate a little of the suffering, or at least, stand in solidarity with those who suffer, as Jesus does.
Originally, this portrait was created for the KRM We Create events in celebration of World Refugee Week in Louisville, KY. KRM provided the We Create artists with videos of interviews with refugees that had come to Louisville to find a home here with us. The young lady in the portrait above had been through so much suffering. She grew up fleeing from violence and living in refugee camps until God made a way for her to escape the constant fear and danger, and come to the US, and finally to Louisville. Her name means “blessing,” and when she settled here in town, she said, “For the first time in my life, I have a place to call home.” This lovely young woman has a heart to serve and help those in need, to be a “blessing” to others. This oil pastel portrait is currently on display at the 1619 Flux gallery as a part of the Provocative Perspectives Exhibition that runs until January of 2019. For gallery hours and events, go to https://www.1619flux.org/calendar.
A Celebration of Color: Oil Pastel Portraits by Susan E. Brooks will be on display at the Open Community Arts Center from July 2 – July 27, with the closing reception on July 27 from 6-9pm. The show is comprised of 16 oil pastel portraits completed within the past two years, including the very recent works created for the “KRM We Create” events for the World Refugee week Festival in June. Ten of the 16 artworks are available for purchase. Come out and see the work, and if you would like to meet me there, let me know!
I am excited to be a part of the World Refugee Festival in Louisville beginning June 16 – 24! Kentucky Refugee ministries has organized a series of art events in celebration of World Refugee Week. The purpose of the events is to celebrate the refugees that have come to Louisville and the blessings they bring to us as a community. The piece pictured above is fairly large, and it is one thing to view art online, but quite another to stand in front of an original work of art. Online you cannot experience the intensity of colors or the interplay of the various textures and strokes in a drawing or painting as you can seeing it “face to face.” So I hope you come out tomorrow to the Better Block Festival and to the Brown Theatre next Saturday, June 23. See you there!
It was one of the most difficult trips I’ve ever taken. We were traveling through Burkina Faso during our missionary days, and the poverty was overwhelming. I found myself, once again, the spoiled, picky, American girl who had trouble eating what the locals would have been thrilled to have. One time at a restaurant, flies were swarming so thickly upon our plates of chicken and french fries that the only way we could eat was to cover our plates completely with napkins, pulling a fry or a piece of chicken out from under it the best we could. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.
Speaking of flies, the donkey that I painted above had flies crawling all over his eyes that were swollen shut. They looked like two slits– they must have been infected. I had to use my artistic skills to open his eyes and make him look healthy and happy. The boy also was not as healthy and glowing as I painted him to be. The truth is that I had to change the sad realities of this boy’s life in order to create a beautiful painting that people would want to see. I’m not sure what to do with that, and I am ashamed to complain about flies on my fries when so many in that country had so little to eat.
How do we respond to the stark contrasts and overwhelming misery that exist in our world? How can we help? Guilt and shame are not the answer. The answer is probably different for each one of us. If only painting away the infections and the hunger would make them disappear. I don’t know how to fix our broken world, but I do see people helping, one person at a time. Thank you, all of you who are loving, serving, and helping, one person at a time. God sees you.