A Mother’s Hope

This oil pastel painting is based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries. In the photo, the child is sitting on a parachute, relaxed, surrounded by vibrant colors. The colorful painting communicates joy and shows an innocent, carefree childhood moment. Every mother hopes her children will be able to enjoy a happy childhood without adult-level fears, at least until they are a little older.

On the surface this is a happy painting, but as the artist, I cannot help but think that too many children do not have the worry-free life they deserve. One of the reasons for the current uprising is that the moment depicted in this painting is all too rare for BIPOC children. I hope we can all work together to make a better world where our children, including BIPOC children, can live happy and free. This is not the land of the free until we are all free.

A Mother’s Hope, Oil Pastel on Paper, 18×24 inches. Based on a photo from the archives of Kentucky Refugee Ministries

The Evolution of a Painting: Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany

In January of 2019, I had an idea for a painting. Perhaps I could illustrate the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the gospel of Luke. How would Jesus have told the story if he were living in the US in 2019?

As I thought about the painting, I wanted to emphasize the fact that in the parable, Jesus chose to identify the hero of the story as a person representing an oppressed minority, a Samaritan. Who could represent an oppressed minority in the US in 2019? I chose a Black Muslim woman as the heroine of my painting.

Stage one of Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany

With the plan in mind, I drew a white man who had been injured, and a Muslim woman who had stopped to help. I used photos from downtown Louisville as references for the streets and buildings in the background.

As I worked, I became agitated, worrying about how some might respond to this painting. Then this happened:

Stage 2: In my angst over how this might be received, I started throwing paint at the canvas.

I started hurling yellow paint, then red paint, then more yellow paint at the canvas. All the while I was thinking, “Why should this be controversial?” (Paint splat!) “Jesus was always standing up for minorities!” (Paint splat!) “How can we be so divided that I’m afraid to paint what I feel or think?” (Another paint splat.) I threw paint until I was calmed down a bit.

Stage 3: The yellow lights reminded me of Merton’s epiphany.

As I continued to work, the yellow lights made me happy. They reminded me of Merton’s epiphany in downtown Louisville when he felt a love for everyone, and saw them all as “shining like the sun.” I hoped love would always be the background for my art and all my communications. I then added the male religious figure in the distance, ignoring the problem, matching the biblical account of the leaders who walked past the injured man without helping.

Modern Day Good Samaritan and Merton’s Epiphany
Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas
36 x 48 inches

This is how the painting turned out. The woman is looking straight out of the painting, confronting the viewer. Sometimes I am tempted to look away from my friends and the oppression they endure, but my God, help me not look away. I will try to see all people as Merton did, “shining like the sun,” but the heroes and heroines in the 2020 Parable of the Good Samaritan are my black sisters and brothers, the peaceful freedom fighters who link arms to protect lone policemen and sing worship songs in the middle of a downtown protest. If Jesus were walking the streets of Louisville today in the flesh, he would likely be standing with them.

The Evils of White Supremacy: The Story behind the Painting

White Supremacy, 24 x 18 inches, Acrylic and Oil Pastel on Canvas, exhibited and sold at KORE Gallery’s Black and White exhibition, September 2019.

The term white supremacy is sometimes used to refer to extremists who openly spew hatred and violence against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color [BIPOC]. These fringe groups seem to be on the rise in recent years, and they are included in the thoughts behind this painting; but it is systemic white supremacy, the idea that whites are somehow superior, built into so many of our social systems—that is destroying our country.

In the painting above, the colors inside the map of the US represent our beautifully diverse country. The boot above, coming down to crush our nation, is the boot of white supremacy. In the painting, some white people are trying to climb up onto the boot, thinking that white supremacy will save them from destruction. The boot is oozing “whiteness.” If you look closely, you will see there is a knife coming down to the boot. The idea is that white supremacy is self-destructive.

“Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just ‘forgotten that we belong to each other.'”* Let’s find a way to change the destructive systems and remember “we belong to each other.”

*Rohr, Richard, “Being One with the Other,” Center for Action and Contemplation, June 4, 2020, https://cac.org/being-one-with-the-other-2020-06-04/.

Mozambican Odyssey, #26: Stuck Between Two Countries

Some of us feel stuck now, waiting for the chance to get on with life. Window to the Soul, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper, 14 x 11, by Susan E. Brooks

One of the best things about living overseas was having groups from the US come to visit. They brought excitement to our lives, and the groups were generally encouraging and generous to our family. Our kids especially loved the group visits because it meant trips to fun places we didn’t normally go. One of our favorite trips was to a game reserve just across the border in Swaziland.

This rhino used our bumper to sharpen his horn! That was a little nerve-wracking.
The elephants also came very close during the safaris in Swaziland.

I remember one such trip that turned out to be a little too exciting! Mkhaya Game Reserve boasted white rhinos, elephants, and a beautiful setting for a safari ride in close proximity to the animals. A group from Kentucky had arrived, and we loaded them onto a bus for the trip across the border into Swaziland.

At the Mozambican side of the border they checked all of the passports and sent us on across with no problems, but on the Swaziland side we ran into a snag. One of our visitors had a Mexican passport, and they said she would not be allowed to cross. We were stuck between the borders. As much as I wanted to do something to help, I could do nothing but sit and pray. Our leaders negotiated while the rest of us sat on the bus and waited—for hours. The reason they finally let us enter is a mystery to this day.

In some ways, what we are going through now feels like that time when we were forced to wait between two countries in a kind of “no man’s land.” Going back was not an option, and moving forward was not allowed. Now we sit still, mourning the past and fearing the future.

It’s a difficult place, but in these times God can do something new if we remain quiet and listen. Richard Rohr explained it this way:

The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words. Liminal space is where we are most teachable, often because we are most humbled.*

Eventually, God made a way for us, and we entered the land. In time, we will be able to move into the next phase of our lives, but while in this liminal space, maybe we can look forward with expectancy, “receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words.”*

*Rohr, Richard, “Between Two Worlds,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 26, 2020, https://cac.org/between-two-worlds-2020-04-26/.

Mozambican Odyssey, #25: Lessons from a Three-year-old

My son Joseph was quite the story teller at age three. Here he is ready for adventure with his monkey backpack.

On the spur of the moment, I was asked to make a speech in front of hundreds of Mozambicans. I was terrified!

It was our first wedding in Mozambique. As we made our way, asphalt roads turned to dirt, and the people in the villages stopped to stare at us as we bumped along with our three blond kids in the back of the Landrover.

Along the way people in the villages stopped and stared at us. Hero’s Journey, oil pastel portrait, 20 x16 inches by Susan E. Brooks

Finally, we found the church building, and the women welcomed me with kisses on both cheeks. They promptly led us to the platform up front. Oh no! This is not what I was hoping for at all. I was planning to be late and to slide into the back unnoticed—ha! When would I learn I could not hide in Mozambique? We were the only Americans there, and we were seated up front, facing everyone, with a few honored guests.

The ceremony carried on, and they asked Martin to give some advice to the wedding couple. We weren’t ready for that either. It would have been hard enough to think on your feet in front of a large group of people in your own language and culture, but he was asked to speak at the first Mozambican wedding we had ever attended.

Apparently, the tradition was to have family and friends give advice to the couple. Martin looked uncomfortable, so they tried to find someone who spoke English to translate. Finally, they found a young man with a little English, and Martin came up with an analogy, using the example of a triangle showing that as a couple moves closer to God, they also move closer to each other.

I was breathing a sigh of relief for Martin, when I realized they were asking me to do the same. Panic! Even the horrified look on my face didn’t persuade them to withdraw the request. I had to stand up in front of a church full of Mozambicans, and I had no idea what I would say. At least I had the young man standing next to me to translate. But then Martin had to choose that moment to brag on my Portuguese to the minister, and they took my translator away!

I couldn’t believe it. I was standing alone up on a platform with hundreds of strangers staring at me. In my panic, I forgot how to conjugate my Portuguese. The people were laughing at me, and so I laughed, and just stood there dumbfounded for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I managed to give some advice in poorly spoken Portuguese. I advised them to pray together and stay together for always. I survived, and the wedding went on.

Sometimes I wonder how the world just keeps moving on, paying no attention to my crises. Probably I should be stronger as a result of all of that. Certainly people have survived worse. Will I ever learn not to be afraid of speaking in front of crowds? I don’t know.

My little son Joseph used to tell “ranger stories,” in which he, as a ranger, would face all kinds of foes–lions, gorillas, etc., and his stories always had the chipper refrain, “But I didn’t die!”

Maybe I need to learn from three-year-old Joseph. I didn’t die, so it’s all right. Martin, on the other hand, nearly died when I got him home after opening his mouth about my Portuguese! But he didn’t die either. Don’t y’all worry.

Hacks for the Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020

Young Girl Wearing a Capulana, Oil Pastel on Paper, 24 x 18, by Susan E. Brooks

I find it amusing that we are so worried about toilet paper right now, and in the spirit of fun and laughter, I thought I’d share a few TP hacks that I learned in our travels overseas.

The Capulana Shuffle

First, we have the Capulana Shuffle. The young lady in the pastel above is wearing a capulana. Fortunately, for women in Mozambique, there were these big rectangles of brightly printed fabrics that were inexpensive and available everywhere, called capulanas. Women and girls used these as skirts, table cloths, picnic blankets, dresses for little girls, towels, baby carriers, and the list goes on.

While traveling in remote areas in Africa, I was taught by the veteran missionary wives that one can do the “capulana shuffle” if there’s no toilet around. So you tie the capulana around your waist, over your normal clothes, and you go outside where you can’t be seen, and squat, keeping your capulana around you as a shield while you do your business, and you use whatever biodegradable wipe you have or can find as your toilet paper, just make sure you don’t use poison ivy leaves, as has happened to somebody I know. I was never very good at the capulana shuffle, I confess.

Another hack I learned from our African travels is this: You could also dig a big hole in your backyard, about 2 x 4 feet, and pretty deep. You put two wooden slats across the hole for squatting, some kind of wall around it, and carefully do your business there, again using any biodegradable wipe you can come up with, but be careful, people have been known to lose their underwear forever in this type of outhouse situation. Just sayin’.

And with these hacks you can use any paper substitute instead of TP. In Mozambique, Martin learned this the hard way. He worked so hard to learn to preach in Portuguese, and when he did preach, he had to print off his sermons word-for-word, so that he could have the Portuguese in front of him.

One Sunday, after delivering a 10 or 11 page sermon, one of the Mozambican church leaders asked if he could have Martin’s sermon notes. He was flattered, thinking they wanted to study his sermon and remember the inspiring Bible verses he had shared.

A little later, Martin and his friend and coworker, Don Hulsey, traveled to visit that church leader at his home. After a trip to the outhouse, Don let Martin know that his sermon was shoved onto a nail in the outhouse, being used as toilet paper. Thinking there was surely some mistake, Martin checked it out for himself. There it was, all of his hard work and inspiration, being torn to pieces, strip by strip, and put “where the sun don’t shine.”

The Middle Eastern Watering Can
Some places where we’ve traveled, such as Cyprus, do not need toilet paper because they use water—no, not a bidet, but a much less expensive option, the watering can.

You can just put the watering can that you use to water your flowers, filled with water, beside the toilet, and rinse off with that. There you go. I honestly have never done this. I’ve just seen the cans in the bathrooms, so you are on your own as to how to dry off, etc.

The Portugal Plumbing Predicament

Back in 1999, we spent 6 months in Portugal, studying Portuguese, because it was the official language of Mozambique. Portugal was beautiful, with mosaic tiles, historical monuments, and castles everywhere, and we loved our time there in many ways, but they had plumbing issues.

In our apartment building, and I think in most places in the country, we were not allowed to flush toilet paper. Portugal was quite modern with flush toilets, but you had to have a trash can lined with a plastic bag beside every toilet, and that was where you put the TP.

So if you run out of TP, just get a trash can, preferably with one of those lids you can open with your foot, and put your used paper there. It doesn’t have to be toilet paper. Any paper will do if you’re not flushing it—you can even ask your pastor for his sermon printouts.

Transformation and Resurrection

Embracing Grief, Oil Pastel on Paper, 24×18, by Susan E. Brooks

Easter Sunday

Embrace your grief, embrace the cross, and know that God is in the business of transforming that grief and resurrecting you as a new person, full of compassion and hope for the future. Because of the resurrection we have hope. We have hope of seeing our lost loved ones again, and we have hope that those dreams that have died, or may feel like they are dying, will be transformed and resurrected by God in the future.

It’s an Easter like no other, but if we can focus on the new life and resurrection that is coming, in so many different ways and in so many areas of our lives, we can celebrate today. Much grace, peace, and resurrection hope to all of you dear ones today. Happy Easter!

Count Your Blessings and Bawl Your Eyes Out

Facing Grief, Oil Pastel on Paper, 18 x 24 inches, by Susan E Brooks

I wonder if I was the only one, sitting on the steps in the dark last night bawling my eyes out.

Last Thursday morning I learned that Mom had fallen during the night. I had already been worried sick about her because she’s in a nursing home in Leitchfield, KY, and we haven’t been allowed to see her for weeks.

My little 90-year-old mom is like the energizer bunny in that she just keeps going, and has fallen multiple times without breaking anything, but she has Parkinson’s, dementia, diabetes, and the list goes on.

When I got the call, it felt like a death sentence. Yes, she had broken her hip. Surgery was really the only option. Not doing surgery would mean a slow, painful death, but with surgery, she might make it, if all the stars aligned in her favor.

I am the sixth of seven children, and my younger brother moved out of state recently, so I was trying to sort out whether I could be with her at all, and where she would end up for the surgery.

Often, patients are sent to Louisville from Leitchfield for surgeries when the small regional hospital doesn’t have the surgeons or equipment that might be needed.

I called my son, the nurse practitioner, and asked his advice about how to stay safe if I were allowed to be with mom at a Louisville hospital. He said I should take some cloth face masks and wear those. I was asking whether I should quarantine myself away from Martin after leaving the hospital, when we got the call that mom would be able to have the surgery in Leitchfield.

That was the first big blessing!

The whole of Grayson County (where mom is) had only reported 2 cases of Coronavirus, and no deaths from it. I was very relieved that she would not have to come to Louisville, where the virus is spreading, people are dying, and the healthcare workers do not have the PPE that they need.

My sister, who lives in Grayson County, and normally takes care of mom’s medical decisions, was keeping me updated. She’s the strong one, who worked as a CMA in a nursing home giving out meds when she was younger. I’m the wimpy artist, who faints at the sight of blood, and is overly sensitive to, well—just about everything.

But now my sister is in her sixties and has a heart condition, so she and I agreed, along with my other siblings, that I should be the one to go be with Mom if that were allowed.

Sis heard that one person could be with Mom while she waited in the emergency room, but not after that, so I lead-footed it the 82 miles down to Leitchfield, only to find out I was too late. Mom had already been taken to her room, and I was not allowed to see her.

Dejected, I took my time driving back up to Louisville, feeling that I had failed mom and my family, because I hadn’t made it on time.

Back at home, I called the hospital, to see how Mom was doing. When I talked to the nurse in charge, and told her my story, she said that she would allow one family member to stay with mom because of her dementia.

Big Blessing number 2

I was told that I could stay with Mom in her hospital room, but I was not allowed to leave the room at all until I left for good. So I packed an overnight bag and drove back down to Leitchfield.

My heart was in my throat as I saw my mom for the first time since February. I wanted to hug and kiss her, but instead I washed my hands thoroughly, and then held her hand and told her I love her.

When the surgeon came in, he asked about my family, and we discovered that he had graduated from high school with my younger brother.

Big blessing number 3

I felt encouraged knowing that Mom was not just a stranger to him. Thank God for this surgeon who returned to his small town to serve the people he knows and loves, even when he could have made more money elsewhere. Thank God for all of our healthcare workers! They are all heroes.

Mom came through the surgery without any major problems!

Big Blessing number 4

Sunday afternoon, they sent Mom back to the nursing home. As of last night, she was doing well, and God has been so good to me. So why was I bawling my eyes out in the dark on the steps last night? Maybe I just needed to let it out. Maybe you do too. Go ahead. Count your blessings and bawl your eyes out.

Mozambican Odyssey, #24: Cholera epidemic, Corona, and Grief is a wolf

“Grief is like a wolf we keep locked in the basement.”– Shelby Forsythia,* Artwork by Susan E. Brooks, 24 x 18, oil pastel on paper.

As I think about our time in Mozambique and what we’re going through now with the corona virus, I remember the cholera epidemic that we experienced back then. There was no internet, we hardly had television, and what newspapers we had, were all in Portuguese, so it was a struggle to read them. One huge difference between that and this Covid thing is that you can’t deny it or get away from hearing about it.

In Mozambique, it was not unusual to see toddlers carrying babies on their backs.

But somehow, back in the late 1990’s, we learned that there was a cholera epidemic in Maputo, Mozambique; and many people were dying, including children.

It was terrifying for us, and there was very little we could do. So many people living around us didn’t have running water or flush toilets; and neither did they have clean drinking water, so they were getting it through their water, if they didn’t boil it. I remember we printed up some flyers to pass out explaining the importance of boiling water and washing hands.

Other than that, we felt that all we could do or should do, was stay home and keep our kids healthy and away from the epidemic. I remember feeling frustrated with some cross-cultural workers, who were not medical professionals, who went around as if they were invincible, in the name of trying to help, but maybe spreading the disease, and putting all of our children and ourselves at risk.

It’s always hard when the thing to do is to do nothing, but it’s not about us, it’s about the community, and our friends and family around the world, getting through this.

This time has felt so sad and overwhelming for me, and I know others are suffering more than I am. We need to allow ourselves to grieve during this time. I came across this good advice in a devotion earlier this week:

revealing your feeling is the beginning of healing, so simply acknowledging or naming our disappointment to God is an important move. This is especially important because many of us, if we don’t bring our disappointment to God, will blame our disappointment on God, thus alienating ourselves from our best hope of comfort and strength. . . .  
—Brian McLaren
**

In this time of crisis, go ahead and let the wolf of grief out of the basement. It’s okay to cry, and please, talk to someone. Let’s not alienate ourselves from our best hope, but rather pour out our disappointments to Him, and find comfort and strength.

*Quote from Shelby Forsythia was heard on The Robcast, by Rob Bell **Quote from Brian McLaren was from Richard Rohr’s email devotions this week

Mozambican Odyssey, #23: Malaria, Corona, and House calls

Joseph always took care of his little sister.

From my journal written in 1996, Maputo, Mozambique:

A couple of weeks ago Joseph, our 6-year-old got a mosquito bite on his leg and it started bleeding a little. He got quiet and tears started to form in his eyes.

“What’s wrong, Joseph?” we asked.

“People die from mosquito bites here. Does this mean I am going to die?” our little son asked.

Wow. How much stress are we putting the kids through? Is it worth it? This is so hard.

We assured Joseph that one mosquito bite was not a death sentence. But as his mom, I worried, because I knew there was a remote chance that any of us could get malaria and die before we left Mozambique. I lived with a constant, low level dread and fear that I might not return to Kentucky with all 5 of us, that one of us might die of malaria.

Thousands of African children die of malaria every year. Oil Pastel on paper, 24 x 18, by Susan E. Brooks.

Malaria was a real risk, but every mosquito bite didn’t mean certain death. We were able to use mosquito nets, and we sprayed the kids with repellent, and we had access to treatment and medical facilities if we needed it; but Joseph was not totally wrong to be concerned. Malaria killed many children in Mozambique every year, and it still does.

Yesterday I was caring for my granddaughters, ages 4 and 6, when they decided it would be hilarious to jump up and down in the bathtub full of water to see how slippery it would be. I found myself panicking, thinking,

“I don’t want to have to take you to the emergency room for stitches in the middle of this crisis! What if they don’t have room for you?”

We are probably not there yet, but if we’re not careful, we could be soon. Now is the time to do something about it. Please “hunker down” with your family and do what’s necessary to protect the elderly and our children, who will not die from Coronavirus, but they may fall in the bathtub and need attention in the emergency room!

My granddaughters, demonstrating how not to act during the coronavirus outbreak.

And here’s another option if you’re in the Louisville area and need healthcare. That smart, sensitive little son in the picture has grown up to be a nurse practitioner in a medical practice that sends out nurse practitioners to your home. They are now accepting new patients. Here’s a number to call them if you need medical help, but don’t want to risk going to the doctor’s office or the hospital. Call 502-327-9100 to set up your appointment.

More than ever, we need to care for each other; and for now, for most of us, that looks like staying home and not hoarding hand sanitizer. Joseph’s group has already had to ask the community to help by donating cleaning supplies from their homes, because their medical personnel were running short. Let’s trust God to provide for the future, stay home, and wash with soap and water.