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Paula Mehmel

Paula V. Mehmel, who describes herself as a “radical, evangelical, Lutheran mystic,” is currently parish pastor at Elim Lutheran Church in Fargo. Based in Casselton, N.D., but a Minnesota native, she holds an undergraduate degree in English and German from Washington University in St. Louis and her Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. “Pastor Paula,” as she is widely known, is a popular speaker, writer, and proud single mother of two sons who both attend Harvard University. With a passion for serving the last, the lost and the least, Mehmel is a committed community member with a special interest in homelessness, refugee resettlement and addressing issues of sexual violence. She also created a no-cut community theater in Casselton to assure herself a small role in the ensemble each summer, fulfilling her desire to sing and dance on stage. She relishes the opportunity to share her thoughts on anything from social justice to theology to random musings about her latest travel adventures.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Race Of Life

I am not a runner.

Oh, there have been times in my life when I’ve run, like when I was in high school and I was in track. I was a thrower — shot put and discus — but the coach wanted to fill out the full roster for team points, so I was forced to run the two-mile. And forced is the right word. I used to pray for rain, and even do rain dances, so that meets would be canceled and I wouldn’t have to run.

The thing is, when you are bad at something like the 100-meter dash, you can only lose by so much. Your humiliation is over quickly. But when you are bad at the two-mile,  it can go on for what seems like an eternity. And I was bad — to the tune of being lapped a time or two in an eight-lap event.

So bad, in fact, that everyone on the field would be pulling for me. I often thought it was because they were all afraid I would die and it would gum up the rest of the meet. But those cheers mattered. They got me through the race.

I tried to take up running a few years ago, completed an abysmally slow 5K, and in the process tore my medial meniscus and needed surgery. I think God was telling me something. So now I don’t run.

Even though I don’t run, I nonetheless often use running metaphors when I talk about a life of faith. The Bible frequently uses the image of running the race  as a comparison to a life of faith, including a call  for people of faith to “run the race that is set before you.”

As a pastor, I tell people that they need to practice their faith for the same reason that people need to train for a marathon. You train for a marathon so that you are ready to go when the big day comes — you are prepared to face the challenge.

And by practicing your faith, you are ready when there are challenges in life. You are prepared.

But unlike training for a marathon, you don’t know when your challenges will come. You don’t know when you are going to have to rely on your faith to help you forge ahead in the face of struggle, heartache and pain.

Just as marathon runners train their muscles to deal with the pain, when you practice your faith through prayer, worship, service and devotion, you are ready to deal with whatever life throws you. Faith isn’t to get into heaven — that was accomplished by Jesus and his defeat of death and offer of forgiveness. Faith is to get you through life. To help you run the race that is set before you.

It isn’t easy to get through a marathon — or to get through life. But if you are prepared, you are better able to handle it.

That is why I watched with shock the YouTube video of Scott Cramer, the Minnesota State University-Moorhead student who ran a marathon without training for it. I know Scott tangentially. He is dating a young woman who is the daughter of one of my closest friends. I baptized Jaden, taught her in confirmation, and she was president of the Philanthropy group I advised when she was in high school. So I know that he has good taste and must be a quality guy.

But I also think he has a few rocks loose in his head. After watching the video he made while running the Fargo Marathon, I think he may agree. His plan was to train for the marathon when he registered for it last October, but he never got around to training for it. So he decided instead to run it without training and make a video of his effort.

Scott survived his ordeal. At first, he was confidant — running the first nine miles, but as time wore on, the reality set in, and he discovered what real pain was. However, he soldiered on, finishing the 26.2 miles in 6 hours and 16 minutes. Not exactly a top finisher, but a finisher nonetheless.

He credits his ability to complete the race to the encouragement he received, both from the people along the way, who cheered him on, as well as his core supporters, Jaden, as well as his sister, who walked about six miles with him, to keep him going when he was down on himself.

As I reflected on his journey and what I have often said about faith, I have decided that Scott is the exception who proves the rule. Scott did get through the race. But it was much harder than it would have been without training, he didn’t do as well as he could have, and he hurt far more than he needed to. The pain that was apparent in his video the next day revealed a man who could barely move. He was literally felled by the race he endured.

In life, that is also true. Can we get through the challenges of life without faith Well, sometimes you just have to. You just forge ahead. But if you aren’t practicing your faith, those challenges can take everything out of you and literally drive you to your knees, unable to move forward.

There is still pain when you are in shape — spiritually or physically. But the immediate and lasting effects of being ready allow you to cope better. You are better prepared for what comes your way, far better prepared than Scott was. And because of that, you are better able to face the journey and stronger in its aftermath, rather than being laid out flat on your back, unable to move.

But there was one other part of this story that struck me. It was the role that both Jaden and Scott’s sister played. Scott said he could not have made it had they not walked with him and encouraged him. They kept him going when he was down on himself and motivated him to finish the race.

In Hebrews 12:1, it says that “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

When you practice your faith, and stay in shape spiritually, it becomes your job to be a part of that “cloud of witnesses,”  to be encouragers who support and urge on others in their race, whether they are in shape or not.

Because just as faith is not to get into heaven, but to get through life, it is also not just for ourselves. Living a life of faith means living a life that focuses on others.

Selfishness is the antithesis of a spiritual life. Jaden and Scott’s sister could have derided Scott and told him that he needed to do this himself. That kind of “rise from your own bootstraps” mentality, where they could have told him “You are responsible for this, so we aren’t going to help you.”

But that’s not what they did. Instead, they cheered him on, walked with him, and helped him finish the race. They literally went the extra mile — actually six miles — to accompany him as part of his cloud of witnesses.

Because that is what friends do, and that is what Christians are called to do. To help others when they are down on themselves, to see their needs and to accompany them on their journey.

Those who say people are not responsible for the needs of others, who don’t want to support them, or worse yet, tear them down, miss the point of faith entirely. It isn’t meant to just run your own race. It is a team event. Where we call out to each other and support each other on our journey.

The life of faith is about being a part of a community and being a community means supporting each other.

Back in the day, when I was a reluctant runner, earning “team points” as I circled the track, being lapped not because I was out of shape, but because I was just bad, it was those who cheered me on who got me through the race.

And Scott said the same thing — he wasn’t ready, but those around him were ready to cheer him on. And that made all the difference.

So I urge you today to keep in shape spiritually so you are ready for the race. Learn from Scott that not being in shape can make life hurt more than it needs to. And learn from Jaden that cheering others on can help them finish the race, even if they aren’t prepared.

In doing that, you live out what it means to run the race of life. Not just for yourself, but for others.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Lure Of Angor Wat

When discussing with Jen what I wanted to do in Cambodia, I made it clear that my first priority was to be of service to the Young Adult in Global Mission program and to her in any way possible and that I had no reconceived expectations.

That said, I added, if it worked out, I would really love to see Angor Wat. Jen responded by telling me that the Cambodians she knew would be most upset if I visited their country and did not get a chance to tour Angor Wat, a place of majesty and beauty that is rightfully a source of great national pride.

We set off for Angor Wat, a 350-kilometer, 6½-hour ride by bus. The buses in Cambodia are of varying quality, but I have by in large been impressed by them, their frequency and efficiency. Because of timing, we took the cheaper ($6) bus there and were the only Westerners, returning on a fancier $15 bus with reclining seats and wifi that had more of the backpacking crowd. Both were great, however.

Angor Wat is located near Siem Reap, a lovely tourist mecca that has a great vibe. There are numerous upscale hotels but also a great market area and lower budget “hang-out” place in the neighborhood of Old Market. We had a great meal and then bargained our way through the market as I bought items to share with others upon my return. Jen is much better at bargaining than I, so I got a few great deals, I think. I am not made for bargaining.

Our hotel was incredible — for $20 a night we had a lovely room with a king bed and a double, breakfast, free transport to and from the airport or bus station, two 30-minute massages and free dinner one night. Oh, and the place had a pool.  With a fine meal for two including beer running about $8, Cambodia is definitely a good stop for a budget traveler.

We arranged with a tuk tuk driver to leave the next morning at 5 a.m. so we could head out to the ticket area to buy tickets — an incredibly organized affair where they process thousands of tickets with your photo on them in short order — and then out to Angor Wat.

Angor Wat is the name of the both the Archeological Park and what is often the first, and most well-known, stops within the park. A Wat is a seminary, or monastery, where priests gather and study. These temple-like structures were built by each ruler as a sign of their connection with God, with high stupas that reach toward the heavens, where the ruler’s cremated remains are placed after their death. Each Wat in the area we visited seemed to get larger with each ensuing ruler, with Angor Wat being the largest.

As we approached it, the iconic spires set against the rising sun gave off one of those views that is every bit as amazing as you would expect it to be. There were some clouds in the area that allowed for shades of pink and yellow that added to the glory.

People arrive at sunrise largely for two reasons. One is because with the sunrise behind it, Angor Wat is astounding at that hour, and the light hits the whole area in a magical way. The other is practical — it is HOT and the humidity is stifling so one wears down quickly with a heat index that goes over 100 degrees early in the day. It isn’t cool in the morning by a long shot, but it is slightly less oppressive.

After walking though the Wat once on our own, I opted to hire a guide because I find that you get insight you would not otherwise receive, and I preferred to have it told to me as opposed to looking up and down from a guide book. I am glad I did.

The guide we hired was helpful in giving us the history of Angor Wat and pointing out details that I would have otherwise missed. One of my favorite facts was that if a Wat was not complete before the ruler died, his successor might finish off the external structure — like finishing  a spire — but not the decorative pieces, like the astounding bas reliefs on the walls. Most of them were complete, but there were spots when you could see the stenciling that had been done prior to the carving that was never complete.

Built in the 12th century, Angor Wat is the largest religious temple in the world.  However, when the rulers of the Khmer Kingdom moved  the capital south to Phnom Penh, in part to get away from continuous wars with nearby Siam (Thailand) and in part to be better positioned for agriculture production and transportation on the Mekong River, the place fell into disrepair and faded into the jungle. It was never completely abandoned, unlike some of the other spots we visited on our tour, but it nonetheless bore the effects of time, weather and neglect.

It largely remained intact during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, although they used whatever wood remained. Even though Pol Pot sought to destroy anything connected with religion, Angor Wat was a symbol of the power and ingenuity of the Khmer people.

It was during the Vietnamese rule and the civil wars in the 1980s and early ’90s when smugglers came in and lopped the heads off of many of the Buddhas and statues of the gods because they are easier to carry. The temple was originally created to honor the Hindu god, Vishnu, but as Cambodia became a Buddhist nation, the temple became a  home to Buddhist monks.

The tour was fascinating, and the view from the top spire was astounding. Well worth the steps up to the top. The reliefs told stories of Hindu gods, and our guide helped us understand them more, which was definitely value added.

After our tour — we were there over three hours — we had breakfast. I was amused that the breakfast spots, which was a series of little restaurants linked together under a tent, had funky names. We ate at Harry Potter, Spiderman and Lady Gaga. Jen said it was the way the propieters got you to remember their names when they accosted you as you entered the park. “Come back and eat at Angelina Jolie. I give you a good deal.”

I did find the vendors particularly aggressive around this space, but that makes sense. It’s a place rife with tourists. They encourage you at every stop not to buy from children as it encourages them to sell and not be in school. That was good to see but didn’t affect a rather strong child marketing campaign.

From Angor Wat, our tuk tuk driver took us to a series of archeological sites throughout the park. We saw the main town (the Wat is always away from the town) and  several temples in various states of repair. They each had their own unique character. Most visits involved a lot of climbing on sometimes precarious stairs or steps but the view was always worth the risk. They each had their own

One of the temples had been painfully taken apart for restoration in the 1960s because overgrowth and erosion had sunk it into the earth. But before it could be restored, the Khmer Rouge took over and although they didn’t destroy the spot, they destroyed the plans and maps of how to put the rocks back together, so countless cleaned and numbered stones lay around, as no one knew how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Jen and I were well matched for our tour, since we both have active imaginations and a love for stores like “The Chronicles on Narnia,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” As a result, we really enjoyed the various entryways, catacomb-like spaces and portals and often kept looking for the magical ones that would take us back in time — perhaps a time before Trump first declared his candidacy — to warn people.

It was hot and exhausting, so we would at times have to sit down and catch our breath (OK, I had to. Jen is much younger.) On one such occasion, I sat down on a rock that I failed to see was covered in red ants. When they started biting, I leaped up.

Throwing modesty to the wind, I threw up my skirt to remove some from my torso as Jen removed them from my socks. For the next while, we kept intermittently stopping as I felt a bit, and we found another ant, and after that was done, more “ghost feelings” of bites and crawling of ants that weren’t there.

Our last stop was Ta Prohm, the site where the movie “Tomb Raider” was filmed.  It was my favorite stop, with overgrown trees that literally encompassed the ruins in their roots. It all felt very surreal. Except for being a bit bothered by a European family that spent over 10 minutes literally doing their own photo shoot at a spot where I wanted to take a photo (reminding me that tourists can be real jerks), it was a truly astounding and peaceful place for a last stop of the day, as I sought out spaces where it was quiet and I could be alone to soak up the majesty, mystery and magic of not just Ta Prohm but all of Angor Wat Archeological Park.

As I was leaving the temple near the end of my tour, I slipped on a wet stone and slowly fell to my knees — my legs weary from the nearly 12 miles we had walked in the past 11 hours — and it felt like an apt metaphor for this amazing, spiritual journey through Angkorean Temples. The place literally brought me to my knees.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — A Trip Into The Heart Of Cambodia

We took a tuk tuk to Takeo.

Takeo, a province south of Phnom Penh, is not only the location of a spot Jen was scouting as a possible end of the year retreat for the YAGM volunteers, it was also the home province of our friend and tuk tuk driver, Me-an’s wife’s family. So when Jen arranged with him to take us out there to see if the area was suitable, he extended to us an invitation to visit his home and meet the members of his family.

Tuk tuk drivers, like so many of the other workers in the city, as a rule come from the provinces because they cannot make a sustainable income there. They purchase a motorcycle and carriage in the hopes of being able to live in the city and send home funds to provide for the family members they are obligated to support. (Parents and in-laws are supported by their family in their old age, and obviously children need support, as well as family members who cannot work.) Depending on the distance and time they have available, some get home a couple times of year and others on a monthly or biweekly basis.

Me-an rarely got to his familial home in the distant province, but he lives with his in-laws and tries to get there every other week to see his twin daughters, who are in Grade 12, as well as his mother, father, brother-in-law and nephew, who is the son of another brother. Living in extended family units is not uncommon due to the nature of culture, economics and family life. Post Khmer Rouge, where so many family trees were broken, it is possibly even more convoluted due to necessity of caring for those who survived.

Me-an’s wife also does not live full time in Takeo Province. She works at a sweat shop in Ta-khmal, 40 kilometers north of the village. Sweat shops pick up women before 7 a.m. to work, load them in open trucks where they are squished in, as thousands of them are transported to the factories. After working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., they are once again loaded into these trucks and hauled like cattle to the drop-off location. For their efforts, the receive $153 a month, $5 of which is a government subsidy, so essentially $6 a day. … All so that we can have bargain clothing and the retail industry management can have huge markups.

Me-an and his wife see each other occasionally — when neither of them are working. But they work so that their daughters can become educated. In Cambodia, school is free, unlike many other countries, as long as you have the uniform. However, public school teachers are so poorly paid that most don’t fully engage in the process, hoping to earn extra money to have a sustainable income by tutoring students after school with the information students need in order to pass exams and get into the university. It is a broken system, but it would be too easy to fault the teachers, who need to earn enough to live. Life doesn’t always fall into easy patterns where there are good guys and bad guys in every scenario.

We set off for the adventure on Me-an’s tuk tuk, which took us the 36 miles to his home over a variety of roads — the chaos of the city driving and then down the highway, as we passed shop after shop filled with everything from baskets and tires for sale, to raw meat hung out in the hot (close to 100 degrees) sun and finally to country roads. Some of those were brand-new and smooth and others were awful, as we wandered down ones that became wet with the rains and dried in a manner that left our bottoms a bit sore.

As we got close to the turn off to his village, Me-an pulled over to point out what was essentially half a mountainous hill, where it was clear that mining was being done. He picked up the rocks from the road and pointed to the mountain.

The newer infrastructure being provided for the ease of transportation was at the expense of the hills that surrounded the region. The mountains were literally being removed from the face of the earth.

Jen asked Me-an if he thought this was good, and he said in Khmer, “Not good, I don’t like it.” The systemic excavation of hills for the sake of growth and the deforestation that results as a consequence of it are among the significant environmental issues that face Cambodia, along with the effects of global warming.

We continued our journey and finally arrived at Me-an’s home. He kept saying he was poor to assure us of its simplicity but it was a lovely home, in the style of rural Cambodia. It was essentially a house on stilts, largely to keep it above water in the rainy season and to create a shared, open-air place of shade beneath the home where families can spend time together.

The main dwelling was an upstairs, where most everyone slept. The bottom level was an open-air patio-like area, with a space in back where the elders slept, next to a paddock for the four cows.

Behind the house was a hut for cooking and a bath house. There was a system of water delivery that seemed quite impressive, but nothing that even approached modern plumbing. A couple of light bulbs and electric outlets were powered by solar cells.

The flowers in front had a hedging made from pop bottles, and several poultry — many of which were pecked free of feathers — and dogs wandered around.

When we arrived, we met his mother-in-law, who immediately went back to cook for us. Cambodian women are often painfully shy and rarely interact with Westerners. In Cambodian culture, men and women as a rule don’t interact outside of marriage, but since I was with Jen and we were Westerners, we were able to visit and the men could talk to us.

After being given coconuts to drink minutes after they were chopped off the tree and prepared with a machete, we sat down for the meal. Numerous beers were set out, a huge pan full of rice, and three dishes. One was duck, one was fish, and the last was the most amazing ginger, onion and pepper dish I have ever tasted. I will have dreams about it.

I ate the duck I was served to the extent I could — it was neck, I believe, and the meat was sparse, and the fish was excellent. Jen warned me not to finish my plate or they would refill it with rice, but I ate too much and had it refilled. The meal was interrupted every few bites as we clinked our beer cans and coconuts together to say “cheers.”

While we ate, Me-an’s daughters, who are truly beautiful, returned from school and greeted us shyly and left. They returned in a bit with pillows and mat, where Jen and I were encouraged to take a post-repast nap. With the heat and the fullness of our stomachs, we both drifted off as they placed fans around us to strategically cool us off.

When we awoke, we got ready to leave, having been honored to experience the fullness of Cambodian hospitality in this village, except for one of chickens who kept pecking at me. As we left, Me-an shouted greetings to everyone, proud to show us his role in the community.

We took a different route back, that led us to a mountain that Me-an had told Jen about. When we arrived, he encouraged us to go in for a “10-minute walk” to the Buddhist shrine and pagoda at the top.

Ten minutes my foot. We began the ascent together, but as it became apparent that I was slowing Jen down a bit, I sent her ahead. She needed to reach the top to determine if it was a good location for the YAGM volunteers to visit. My goal was simpler — to leave this mountain alive.

I am a persistent, determined and stubborn woman, however, and despite the heat and humidity, I reached the 412th step (with several steps in between each of the steps) still breathing, albeit heavily.

I was greeted by about as classic an image as one could imagine — a shirtless Buddhist monk sitting cross legged at top of a mountain. He offered me a chair and then fanned me as I recovered, then offered me a chance to light some incense, making homage to the shrine, and offer my own prayers. I am a huge believer in the universality of prayer and delighted in the chance to bear witness in my own prayers to my God, who is a big and inclusive God. After praying, he tied my wrist with a red string and offered me a blessing of good fortune.

It was now time to descend, which should have been easier, but the monsoon rain that showered on us forced us to pull over at a little “shrine along the way,” much to the bemusement of the monk we encountered there.

Back in the tuk tuk, we passed rice fields and lotus flowers As we traveled, Me-an stopped by a stretch of women all selling the same thing — which turned out to be stuffed frog that for some reason had a reddish hue. It was on a stick, and I am thinking that perhaps those women might have a market at the Minnesota State Fair.

We continued on until we arrived at a beautiful lake retreat spot, Tonle Bati, which was one of Jen’s places she needed to see. We walked out on precarious slats of wood, with a flimsy bamboo hand rail for balance only, to an hut on stilts above the water with a hammock and a mat inside. Some women came out with baskets of palm fruit and cakes, which we purchased, and the proprietor came with a menu. We ordered some food and settled in for another break.

My favorite part of this excursion were the boat venders that kept coming by with delicacies like beetles, grass hoppers, crickets and small speckled eggs that might have once belonged to a quail. And ramen. Because, you know  …Cambodia.

After this break and another quick tour of a 12th-century temple that Jen also was checking out (complete with locals trying to sell us flowers and all manner of other items), we finally made our way home.

This last leg was also the dustiest — at one point Jen and I put her krama (a Cambodian scarf) over our heads, completely covering our faces, to protect us from the element. We took a selfie — Jen said it was her favorite picture of the two of us!

By the time we arrived back at Jen and Matt’s apartment, we had completed about an 80-mile journey that had us on the road for nearly six hours. My backside was sore, but my heart was full with an excursion that took me on a tuk tuk to Takeo, but even more so, into the heart of Cambodia.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Communion And More

Today was all about Communion.

Our morning began very early, before the sun had even considered rising, as we needed to take a journey back to Phnom Penh following the wedding the previous night. The journey had been about four hours in our minibus, but the return trip in our taxi was slightly under three, getting us to Phnom Penh about 8 a.m.

For me, the most shocking thing about this part of the trip was the cost. A taxi picked us up at 5 a.m. in Kampot, drove us to Phnom Penh and then drove back with no passengers — all for $40.  Yet, we would pay $5 for a tuk tuk ride from Jen’s apartment to the church — a mere 30 minutes. The tickets to get to Kampot were $6 per person for a seat on a large bus. Jen assured me that when it came to money, nothing about Cambodia was relative.

The plan at worship was for me to preach and be present at Communion as Pastor Daniel, who had just been approved for ordination earlier this week, presided.

The Lutheran Church in Cambodia is quite young, with its first congregation beginning in 2010. It currently has five people who are at various stages in pastoral training — three men and two women — and Pastor Daniel will be the first Cambodian to be ordained, a celebration that will take place in November. In an unusual twist, he will not only become the first ordained pastor but will also assume the role of bishop.

For me, the service consisted of a series of firsts. I have always been a “black clerical shirt” kinda gal, and I broke out a new blue one, in part of a quest to push my boundaries. (I need to break out of my comfort zone every once in a while.)

It was also the first time I have ever preached in bare feet, the first time I have ever seen a cat run across the Communion table during worship and the first time I have ever used “Footprints in the Sand” as a sermon illustration.

Of all of those, I feel the “Footprints” needs the most explanation. When one preaches in a different culture, one needs to be deliberate about examples so that they mesh with the culture to whom you are speaking.

My text was the Road to Emmaus and the concept of Jesus walking with us, even when he disappeared from their midst, lent itself well to that story, which no one hear had heard, so it wasn’t cliched. In a culture where one often walks a long distance in sandals, footprints work as an image.

The worship service itself was Spirit-filled. Most in attendance were the students who live at the hostel that the church runs for university students from the provinces. Some come from Christian backgrounds, but others come there for lodging and experience Christ along the way.

One of the things that moved me most deeply were the prayer concerns, which included prayers for Turkey and Erdogan, racism in Europe and the situation in North Korea. This is a church that is globally connected.

It was an honor to be present as Pastor Daniel presided, as an ordained pastor standing alongside a future colleague and bishop, and to serve Communion with him. And I loved bringing greetings from the ELCA, my synod, and Elim.

Following worship, Jen and I headed back to her flat to drop off our stuff and then headed out to the rural village, Tang Krang, where we would join another young congregation — which began just last October.

The trip out there and back was all part of the journey — first in a van that normally seats 15, but rarely has that few. Jen said the max she had been in had 30 people. Ours wasn’t quite that full, but there were a few chickens who joined us, clucking back and forth at each other from the front and the back of the van.

After we were dropped off — quite a distance from where we wanted to be dropped because the driver didn’t think Jen knew what she was talking about (not an uncommon occurrence since this village isn’t a tourist hot spot, so why would foreigners think they should stop here?) —  we took a tuk tuk down a rough dirt path that had plenty of jolts, passed ponds filled with lotus, to the church.

We arrived just as Sunday School was ending. One of the main outreaches to the village is providing education for the children. The Young Adult in Global Mission volunteer, Lindsay, was doing a new song with the kids today — Father Abraham in Khmer. What a delight to witness that!

Worship was full as well, mostly with children. The ministry sponsored a football (soccer) team, so the kids were there in uniform, ready for a game that would take place following the service. It turned out to be the younger kids vs. the older kids, so the pastor sent them off with the story of David and Goliath.

Part of the service included Communion. Since Pastor Vibol and Sister Sreleak had not yet been approved for ordination, they cannot preside, even with an ordained pastor present, so this was an opportunity to share the sacrament with the community.

I brought the wafers (a gift from Elim) and wine (an expensive port I purchased before we left at the liquor store down the street from Jen. They had a dearth of reds, so this was my only option, which was fine since it keeps with my Communion motto:  “Jesus didn’t die for cheap wine.”)

As I presided, I got goofed up. I have said the Words of Institution well over a thousand times, but when it is interrupted by translation, that muscle memory failed me, and I lost my place.

But that didn’t matter because the eyes of the little ones were trained on me with amazement. This was the first time many of those children had ever witnessed the sacrament. And kids who had been squirrely during the sermon, prayers and readings, sat still with rapt attention. None were baptized, so they didn’t partake, but it was moving nonetheless.

Following worship, we headed back to Phnom Penh, using a reverse route — tuk tuk to van. The trip started out fast but ended in standstill traffic by the river, where we moved only a few hundred feet in a half hour.

Traffic, by the way, is a whole part of the experience. Jen likens it to a dance, which makes sense as motorcycles and tuk tuks move back and forth, finding space where none seems to exist. Direction also seems optional, as I learned as we headed the wrong way down a one-way street once, to avoid road construction. My greatest fear in all of my travels is always traffic accidents.

We finally got out of the tuk tuk and walked the river, looking for a place to eat. We settled at a cafe where we sat outside, by the street.

Almost as soon as we sat down, we were approached by a young boy — perhaps 8 or 9 — with excellent English patter that he used to try to convince us to buy his bracelets or wallets. Jen spoke to him a bit and invited him to sit with us, but refused to buy from him.

Although it is hard for me, I understand and honor her conviction. These children more often than not have “handlers” who use them to get sales and take the money. And even though the kids may be punished if they don’t sell anything, by buying, the cycle is perpetuated. If it makes money for the handler, they will continue to exploit these children. Besides, the sales for those items will either go to a woman in a market supporting her family or these kids supporting some form of human scum. I know who I chose.

After my order of fried spring rolls had arrived, a couple of more kids showed up. As they eyed the spring rolls I offered the boy some and said he could take them. As he grabbed them, other children magically appeared, and suddenly there were three spring rolls for four kids. As one grabbed at them, the other pulled back with a look in his eyes that can only be described as hunger. The real effects of hunger.

Jen quickly placed an order for two more plates of fried rice, and we were joined by five street urchins at our table. Jen engaged in conversation with them, as she urged them to sit in their chairs instead of on their haunches. And we both encouraged them to keep the volume down. Jen also took advantage of the time to learn the colors in Khmer. The other diners looked quite shocked.

We thought the scene might be a bit much for the proprietor, and Jen asked for a to-go box for that and most of the rice and sauce that came with my chicken amok. She said no, as that might result in the kids fighting among themselves, and instead brought five plates and told us to stay. A kindness that Jen plans to remember when she chooses where to dine in the future.

As I went to pay the bill, I thanked her for kindness, and she thanked me for mine. I truly said it was nothing. I spent $6 to feed a few kids. But she said it would at least fill their bellies for tonight. A sad truth, a brief respite from a seemingly never-ending struggle for these poor boys, forced to work, paid nothing and fed less.

They devoured the food with a ferocity that can only be seen in those who lack food security — a situation I have never been in. And then they headed off to work the streets again, aware that the eyes of their employer were probably on them, and they would get in trouble for taking a break without making a sale.

One boy was thirsty, however, and we wandered down the street with him to buy a 75-cent bottle of clean water.

Water and rice. That is what we shared. Communion in a Cambodian context.

There is much that could be said about what happened — both good and bad. There is so much we cannot do and so much that we do to only make ourselves feel better. There are struggles with feeding a few as opposed to investing in addressing the systemic structures that lead to hunger.

And there is the great problem of being seen as the “benefactors,” the “good people” who have the ability to help, somehow becoming superior for simply being in the position in which we can give. There is nothing heroic or particularly great about what we did that night, and no praise should be rendered.

However, all those thoughts aside, sometimes you need to take situations for what they are. And that meal, and my memory of it, will simply be the last form of Communion I shared today.

Because in all of them, Jesus was present.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — ‘One Night In Cambodia’

I never went to prom.

However, at the age of 53, I did attend a Cambodian wedding celebration, which I believe goes one step better.

In order to attend the wedding, and be properly respectful, the first order of business was getting a Cambodian dress.

That was easier said than done, however, because the Cambodian people are small and I am not. So I had to check my vanity at the door as Jen and I wandered the stalls at the market in Phnom Penh trying to find a skirt that would fit. Woman after woman would size me up and down and then, either with a laugh or a bemused face, shake their head “no.”

At long last, we found a woman who had larger skirts and, lo and behold, it fit, with room to spare. This was after shucking my skirt and changing into the wraparound that they would sew to my size in the aisles of the market. Modesty also needed to be left at the door.

Unfortunately, the rust skirt didn’t match the “super fancy blouse,” which was a brilliant shade of emerald green, that Jen had instructed me to bring for the wedding. So off we were in search of a matching blouse. This ended fruitfully, but as the proprietor of this stall did not have the usual sheet to change behind, also included me stripped down to my bra in the full view of God and everyone else. Shopping in Cambodian markets is not for the faint of heart.

Outfit in hand, we took the bus the next morning to the (almost) coastal village, where the reception would take place. The groom was the host brother of the Young Adult in Global Mission volunteer in that area — Jen and her husband Matt are country program coordinators for the ELCA program — and so Jen was invited and I was her “plus one,” with Matt still stateside.

We did not attend the wedding — that took place in the provinces, where the bride was from, over a series of days the preceding week. Those affairs involve ceremony and pageantry that is hard for us to comprehend. The bride had 17 dresses for all of the various facets of the wedding and reception. I saw six and there may have been more.

On our drive back to Phnom Penh, we witnessed a parade of people with both hands full of gifts of fruit and food to present to another bride and groom at 6:40 on a Sunday morning, so I got a glimpse of what I missed with the ceremony.

But we were invited to the finale, grand event — the reception.

Before we could go, though, we needed to get fancied up. I am not someone who wears a lot of makeup, and my idea of a good haircut is one that involves no work, so let’s just say that this is outside of my wheelhouse. Even on my own wedding day, I kept it simple — only a ringlet of roses in my hair.

Part of my “prom-like experience” was two hours of a group of wonderful Cambodian women crimping my hair.
Part of my “prom-like experience” was two hours of a group of wonderful Cambodian women crimping my hair.

So this was my “prom-like experience,” two hours of a group of wonderful Cambodian women crimping my hair — reminding me of the good old ’80s, the best era for my kind of hair — into ringlets that formed what Jen described as “goldilocks hair” and finally weaving it into an amazing series of knots that ended with a rose secured in the center. My hair must have been very confused. It has never had an experience like this. Prior to this, it’s only claim to fame is that I have no gray and don’t color it. The end result was astounding.

Then it was on to the makeup.  I am in theater, so I have worn stage makeup, but this took it to a whole new level. And false eyelashes graced my eyes for the first, and I suspect only time ever. (My eyelashes are the one part of my face of which I am proud. They are long and full.)

As all of this was transpiring, Jen kept joking that of all the things she ever expected to do with me over the years, a “girl’s day” with Pastor Paula would have been last on the list. She thought rock climbing and an exploratory journey to the moon more likely.

By the time we left the shop, I was, without question, a new me.

So off we went to the gala. I used to joke to my boys when they were in high school and talking about prom themes (since they were class officers) that “One Night in Bangkok” was a perfect theme. Well, different song and focus, obviously, but my “prom” was “One Night in Cambodia.”

And it did feel like a souped-up prom as we entered. There were women in stunning dresses that represented every color in the rainbow and then some. The men were less formally dressed, but nonetheless, sharp in brightly colored silk, short-sleeve shirts in a classy Khmer style.

Except for the groom, who donned at least six different suits, like his bride. And an assortment of groomsmen or men in waiting, who were sharply dressed in silk suits of brilliant blue as we entered under an arch of woven flowers that led to a canopy of running blue and flickering white lights that simulated a twilight sky.

At the end of the canopy was a love seat with a background to take photos.  Hello, “One Night in Cambodia — Paula’s Pseudo Prom, circa 2017.”

Once inside the venue, we saw a huge hall full of tables set for 10, full of cans of beer, pop and water for the guests, an open airy place with the river in the background. We were seated in the front, as a sign of honor, since we were guests from another country. I felt incredibly sorry for the young man who ended up seated next to me, as my Khmer conversational skills were sorely lacking.

Over the next few hours, people came in and were fed whenever the table was full, starting in the back, so it was a while before our table had food. But when it did, it was worth it.

The food was served family-style, with a lazy Susan in the middle of the table.
The food was served family-style, with a lazy Susan in the middle of the table.

The food, served family-style with a lazy Susan in the center, just kept coming, eight courses in total, with some incorporating numerous entrees. We had nuts, vegetables, nearly every form of meat from beef and pork to duck, a variety of seafood including stuffed clams, octopus and a seafood stew, cow intestine — a delicacy I choose not to partake (I am still recovering from the Burmese cat intestine I ate trekking in Burma/Thailand in 1988) — and a whole fish.

The meal ended with a truly amazing gelatin or tapioca-like substance in a coconut sauce with palm fruit. One of the people at our table saw the relish with which I ate it and offered me her’s as well. Politeness and diabetes be damned, I accepted with gratitude.

A five-piece rock band with at least three male singers and five female singers/back up dancers entertained at the celebration.
A five-piece rock band with at least three male singers and five female singers/back up dancers entertained at the celebration.

All the while this was happening, a five-piece rock band with at least three male singers and five female singers/back up dancers entertained us with nonstop Cambodian top 40 songs.

Once the meal was over, the celebration began in earnest. In many ways, it was so much like an American wedding, and yet so very different. “Same, same, but different,” as the locals say.

The guests were all encouraged to gather in two lines, to make a path for the bride and groom — now clad in a Western traditional bridal gown and tux, with a Cambodian flare — to walk down. We threw flower petals as they passed us and then lit sparklers to shower them with blessings. (I was a bit afraid with the fire and the amount of hairspray in the room someone would combust.)

Silly string shoots, poppers explode with confetti, and peoples shower the the couple with small fake $100 bills.
Silly string shoots, poppers explode with confetti, and peoples shower the the couple with small fake $100 bills.

Then, after paying homage to their parents who were now seated in front of the band, in what felt like part of a very traditional ceremony, the couple gathered at the huge table of fruit in the center of the dance floor. Silly string shot out, poppers exploded with confetti, and people showered them with small fake $100 bills to encourage wealth and luck, I believe.

The bride and the groom took the stage at this point, where “same, same but different,” was exhibited in full force. The groom threw out the bouquet to a gaggle of waiting men.

The groom pours a magnum of champagne over a stack of glasses that fills at the next level as the upper level pours over the top.
The groom pours a magnum of champagne over a stack of glasses that fills at the next level as the upper level pours over the top.

The groom then poured a magnum of champagne over a stack of glasses that filled at the next level as the upper level poured over the top and the parents and the couple exchange toasts. (I discovered at our tables toasts are popular in Cambodia, as after very few bites, we would hoist our glasses for something.)

After the band leader — who reminded me at this point of the cheesiest of DJ’s —encouraged the couple to share their first public kiss while he was making noises I can’t really describe but I invite you to imagine (whatever you are imagining, I think this was a hundred degrees more),  the couple fed their parents the first bites of fruit. Then, quickly, people began grabbing the fruit off the table, and the bridal party had their first dance.

Then the rest of us were encouraged to join and I did so gleefully. I was made for Cambodian dancing. It involved shuffling your feet to the music while you move your arms around gracefully as you walk in a circle. Several Cambodian women joined me, showing me what I decided were their “signature moves” as we circled the fruit table. They were all so gracious, and one woman asked me if I was happy. Indeed I was. Two kind men even joined Jen and me for a three-step move that had us exhausted.

Having eaten my fill and danced my heart out, it was time for us to leave. By the time we did, many of the others had left as well. As we left, there we were about 40 men and a handful of women still dancing in a circle around a table of what remained of the fruit in the center of the floor.

Which, Jen assured me, was just like prom.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Easy And Right Aren’t the Same Thing

It’s easy, in the face of atrocities, to want to look the other way.

That’s what went through my mind today as I stared at skull upon skull stacked 18 levels high at the Killing Fields Memorial Site, or as I listened to the audio descriptions of torture as I walked through Tuol Sleng Prison, the Genocide Museum.

It would be just as easy to look away and turn it off and pretend that none of this ever happened. Easier for me. But as a citizen of the world, it is not only imperative that I learn while I am here but that I also share because genocides and torture still happen, and the more we know, the better equipped we are to stand strong in the face of hatred.

For those of you, who, like me before today, only have a tertiary understanding of what happened in Cambodia, this is a short version to bring you up to speed.

During the early 1970s, Cambodia was the focus of the “secret war,” where the U.S. carpet-bombed the country regularly. As a result, when the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, just as Vietnam was falling to the Communist rule, they were greeted with cheers.

However, it was only a matter of hours before it became apparent that their intention was anything but good. People in the cities were given mere minutes to prepare before they were forced to leave their homes go out to rural villages in order to develop an agrarian society.

The objectives of Pol Pot and his henchmen went beyond that, however. It was a determined effort to rid the nation of an educated or elite class. People were killed merely for having glasses or soft hands because it indicated that they were not “tough.”

Entire families were killed because the Khmer Rouge believed that “to stop the weeds, you need to pull it out by the roots.” Even babies were killed because he didn’t want family members left to exact revenge.

When there was a question of whether a person should be killed, the general rule was, “Better to kill an innocent person than let a guilty person go free.” And guilty of what?  Usually, nothing but fabricated charges, in an effort to unnerve society by turning everyone into enemies.

By the time Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge fled Cambodia when the Vietnamese invaded and put a new regime in power, at least 2 million Cambodians had been killed — one-fourth of the population.

The Killing Fields is a powerful and overwhelming place, where you see mounds that contained mass graves of the thousands of people thrown their anonymously after they had their throats slit, their skulls bashed or their limbs hacked off. Even as you walk through today, bones are still being unearthed, as well as scraps of clothing, as a powerful reminder that the dead their never found a true resting place.

The Killing Tree.
The Killing Tree.

And then there’s the Killing Tree. The horror of it, next to a pit where women were thrown after often being raped and then murdered, chilled my soul. When Cambodia was liberated, they figured out what this tree was used for by the bits of skull, blood and hair of the babies and small children that were bashed against it before they were thrown in the pit.

It would be easier to just look away.

The same is true as I wandered through Tuol Sleng. I saw the rooms where people were brutality tortured and beaten, the gallows where they were hung upside down and dropped until they became unconscious and then had their heads stuck in a pot full of excrement to wake them up to do it again and the table where they were water boarded, a grotesque torture where one experiences the horror of drowning,

The audio tour left no detail out, as I listened to these brutal devices used to extract false confessions to imagined crimes, justifying the blind folding of the prisoners who were sent off to be killed at night. … If they survived the torture.

And it would have been just as easy to tune it out.

But I couldn’t. These were real things that happened to real people.

I had lunch with a man, who at age 3 was ripped out of the arms of an uncle who was caring for him, since his parents had been taken away. His uncle was blindfolded, bludgeoned in the back of the head, taken to Tuol Sleng and then the Killing Fields.

I went to the Survivor Talk and heard a woman who, like me, was born in 1964. But while I was enjoying life as a junior high schooler, she was separated from her family, saw her brother being dragged to death for trying to get more food and forced to dig what she thought would be her own mass grave.

They couldn’t look away, so I can’t, either.

In 1979, however, when Pol Pot was removed from power, most of the Western World did. He and his henchmen were acknowledged as the “rightful leaders” of Cambodia, and received support — financial and otherwise — from the U.S., among other countries, simply because they had been displaced by a government supported by Communist Vietnam.

Never mind the genocide. Never mind the horrors inflicted on their people. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” was the official stance of countries that turned a blind eye on these atrocities.

Because it is just as easy to look the other way.

Today, too, it is easy to ignore human rights abuses simply because they don’t mesh with our narrative of the world or to determine that the access to natural resources is more significant than how people are treated by their governments.

We live in a world where we can tune out things we don’t like or things with which we don’t agree. We can live in our own echo chamber. And we can ignore things that make us uncomfortable.

But to do that is to fail to see the world as it is. And if we fail to do that, then we cease to able to be agents of change.

I was just a kid when this was all unfolding in Cambodia, and I was powerless to do anything to change it. But being aware that this kind of systemic brutality is not just relegated to the past but very much a part of our recent history and current reality allows me to be voice for the voiceless in a world that needs to hear what happens when we start seeing those who are different from us as enemies.

The people of Germany contributed to building the Genocide Museum because they are only too aware of what can and does happen when we begin to ignore the dignity of each and every person. And they want to witness to where the power of hate can lead.

Both the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng end their audio tours with a challenge to bear witness to what you’ve seen and share it with the world. This blog is the start of that, and as I signed the guestbook, I made a pledge to tell others and to speak out in the face of atrocities and injustice.

It’s easy, in the face of atrocities, to want to look the other way. But easy and right aren’t the same thing.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Navigating The College Admissions Process

It’s the last week of March.

This year, for me, that means that I begin the process of relieving my yard of the detritus that gathered over the winter and recycling all of the items that have been stored in my garage, waiting for a day that was nice enough to haul them to the city recycling bins.

But I also know that this week feels a little different for me this year as an empty nester. Because this is the week when many of the most competitive colleges  in the country send emails that upon opening will yield either shouts of joy or tears of sorrow.

It’s been three years since the tense day arrived for my oldest son. We knew he was going to hear from most of his top choices on Thursday, March 27, 2014.

He’d spent the day at the Regional Science Olympiad and returned home, turned on his computer and sat at the dining room table waiting for them to arrive when the clock turned to 4 p.m. CST. At 3:57 he made me go to the basement. He said I was making him nervous.

So I was emptying the dryer when I heard the first whoop of joy and I ran upstairs to hear the University of Pennsylvania Quakers Fight Song blaring from his computer. When he opened the email from Penn, the first thing he heard was the song, as he read the words, “Congratulations.”

Now that we knew for sure that he had gotten in to one of his top choices, I was allowed to stay in the room, as he opened the rest of the emails as they rolled in — with another yes from Brown and then his dream school, Columbia. We were elated.

About an hour later, when the email from Harvard arrived, the tension was off. Harvard had been a throwaway — a last-second decision made literally because he had an essay he could use for the supplement, and it would be fun to see if he could get in. Columbia had always been the goal.

When he read the words “Congratulations” and clicked on the video of Mark Zuckerberg welcoming him, we were both stunned, to be completely honest. But it wasn’t long before Duncan was hooked, and after a trip to Boston to visit, it was a done deal. He was Harvard bound.

It was a little over 20 months later when his younger brother was put out of his misery of waiting for a decision a bit earlier in his senior year.

We were in New York City, where Ian was one of finalists for the National Wendy’s High School Heisman. The awards event started Friday, and we arrived Thursday, so we spent the day trying to avoid talking about the elephant in the room.

When 5 p.m. EST arrived, Ian left our hotel room to pace the halls, waiting for the email. He opened it as he walked back into the room with a shout of joy — he would be joining his brother at Harvard.

It was actually a good thing he was accepted with Early Action that day because that evening, we had decided to go to a Broadway play — to either celebrate if he got in or drowned his sorrows if he didn’t.

Ian picked the show  — the musical “School of Rock” — based on one of his favorite movies as a kid. But what both of us had forgotten was that in the movie — and the musical — there was a running joke about how you were an utter failure if you didn’t get in to Harvard.  It would have been a really long evening if he had gotten a rejection or even a deferral.

But the truth is, no one is a failure if they don’t get into Harvard. Having two kids there, I hear it from them both all the time. Harvard is just a school. It isn’t heaven.

And the reality is that getting into top college can be a crapshoot. Often there is no rhyme or reason why a student gets an acceptance from one college, waitlisted at another and rejected at a third.

For example, I am aware that none of Duncan’s friends at Harvard who applied to Vanderbilt were accepted. Every last one of them was waitlisted.

Even so, it isn’t uncommon for me to get an email from someone who has a child who wants to go to Harvard, asking for advice. What did my boys do to get into Harvard? And what can they do as parents to support them in their dream? Because in all honesty, the college application process becomes a family affair — even if you have to leave the room when the decision arrives.

I was talking about this to my friend, Tammy, who is also from small town North Dakota and has two children who graduated from Yale and Stanford as well as a daughter who is currently at Princeton. She said she also gets people contacting her, asking for guidance.

As we visited about it a little more, we realized that there may be an untapped market in this area of the country to help both parents and students navigate the college application process, and there are some “tips” we’ve learned along the way. As well as an understanding that not every school is for every student.

Neither of us take any credit for our children’s success in this process — that was done as a result of their own hard work, commitment to being good citizens and natural ability.

We did however, help direct them from time to time. One of my son’s friends refers to her mother as her “Momager,” and that phrase fits Tammy and me perfectly. Doing what we can to help our children succeed on their own terms.

A lot of students have all the tools that they need to successfully get into elite schools, and they most likely would do well there, but they either don’t apply because they are afraid it will be too expensive or else they do apply and don’t get in because guidance counselors and school administrators are not aware of some of the best ways to prepare the best application. That’s not because they aren’t good at their jobs but because so few students ever apply and when they do, they may not know the breadth of top schools available.

In all honesty, many students find that the top schools are more affordable than local state colleges, thanks to generous financial aid programs (for example, anyone making under $65,000 doesn’t pay anything to attend Harvard and you pay only 10 percent of your income up to $150,000.) And there are definitely some ways to improve your chances of getting into a top school. It’s a crapshoot as to which school, but there are pathways to being more successful and to choosing a school that is a good fit.

After talking this over, Tammy and I have decided that we are going to try and fill a niche market. We want to help students tell their story in the application process so that they present their best — and truest — possible self to the college admissions officers. And we want to help mentor parents so that they can present, be supportive but not alienate their children in the process. They may have to leave the room when decision day arrives, but hopefully they will still be on speaking terms!

I’m not sure where this will lead — my empty nest keeps getting filled with opportunities I never imagined. But Tammy and I are excited about the prospect. We are planning a free informational meeting in early June to gauge if there is even interest in college consulting for students and parent mentoring. We want to offer some basic advice to rising seniors who are looking at colleges,  guidance for younger students as they focus on how to develop the best resume while also pursuing their passions and some words of wisdom for parents as they accompany their children. And we will go from there to see what this idea might become.

If anyone who reads my blog has interest or knows someone who might like some guidance, let me know, and we will send you information as our plans become more fully formed. Right now, it is just a pipe dream that we are working to make a reality.

I just know that whatever unfolds in this process, if  I can help some parent hear a whoop from the other room and some student cry tears of happiness as a dream comes true, that it will make this last week in March a little more joyful.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — I Want To Be The Face Of Medicaid Expansion!

I was on Medicaid.

There, I admitted it.  It’s not an easy thing to do for me.

Even when I was on it, and I would go to the doctor, I handed the card to the person at the admittance desk with a furtive glance around to see if anyone saw me. And every time, I wanted to blurt out my story, to “explain” why I was in this situation, why I needed this help. I felt like they looked at me differently when I handed them my Medicaid card, that they looked down on me.

I also felt like I had to slink in to my local pharmacy, when I picked up medication, afraid that others would see that I was on Medicaid. Now to be fair, no one there ever made me to feel that way — but I was just so ashamed.

Ashamed.  That’s how I felt when I was on Medicaid.  Ashamed.

I was, after all, raised in an upper-middle-class home, and I had always maintained at least the façade of a middle-class existence. I was a pastor, with a doctorate no less. Very solidly middle class.

Even as I raised my two sons alone, rarely receiving child support from the time the youngest entered school, I tread water as best I could to keep my head above the surface.

Because I love to travel and have the skills of a travel ninja and could do it cheaply, most people were unaware that we struggled at times. It was most obvious in the 2001 Dodge Caravan with multiple dents that I was still driving in 2013 and the thread-bare state of our mostly used furniture.

As a person who started tithing at age 12, I had learned at a young age the importance of generosity and money management and both served me very well.

But when I unexpectedly found myself without a job, and subsequently with a part-time job with no benefits, I was without health care for the first time in my life. And never had I needed it more.

My sons and I were all dealing with the stress that accompanied both the realities of a jobless sole provider as well as the decline and eventual death of their father from chronic alcoholism. Needless to say, access to mental and physical health care was vital to our survival.

Thankfully, we had Obamacare. And we were able to go on Medicaid for a time. A time when we desperately needed it.

It was a brief blip in our life, but I believe that having that safety net made all of the difference.

Today, our lives are radically different. Both of my sons now attend Harvard University — and I am convinced that would not have happened had we not had access to mental health care when our lives felt precarious and unsure, as the walls of the world were closing around us.

I have embraced life as an empty nester, continuing my love for travel as well as using my energy for activism and blogging, even as I manage a call as a pastor at a wonderful congregation in downtown Fargo. Thanks to the Medicaid expansion program, I stayed mentally and physically healthy at a time when the pieces could have just as easily come unglued, both for me and my family.

Oh, and I drive a 2014 Toyota Camry Hybrid, too. Once again, I am living a solidly middle class life.

But I feel compelled to speak out about my time on Medicaid as our nation is engaged in a debate about health care for two reasons.

First, it is for compassion for those who receive it. There is no reason I should have shame that I was on it. That is what a country whose values extend beyond self-preservation does. It provides for those who are having hard times because you never know when you are going to be the one in need.

We are not, as John Dunne so aptly put, an island, isolated from each other. We are “part of the main,” as citizens of a country; we are part of a community and caring for each other is part of the deal.

The Preamble to the Constitution beautifully articulates this mutuality, reminding us our country is here to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Health care most assuredly promotes the general welfare, insures domestic tranquility, and secures blessings both for those who give and receive it. And when I was without, having Medicaid did just that for me.

Yet, it is all too common to hear people speak negatively about those who receive it or to make assumptions about them. I know that all too well because I heard those comments when I was on the receiving end, and it made me want to slip further into anonymity for fear others would think less of me.

We don’t know people’s stories, we don’t know their journey — what chronic illness or pain, even that which may not be visible, with which they struggle and we don’t know the demons that lurk in their past that may have led them down roads less travelled.

So I want to proclaim boldly and loudly — I am the face of Medicaid Expansion. And my two sons at Harvard are as well. And so are others you may not know. Its impact goes deeper than you may think.

And you may never know when you will be the one who needs it. I can assure you, it was a possibility that never even crossed my mind. So have compassion because you don’t know when you will need that same grace extended to you.

My second reason for speaking out is because it truly does make a nation stronger when we extend care to the most vulnerable. It has been heartening to read the statements by Republican governors, testifying to the profound and powerful impact Medicaid expansion has had. It gives me hope that there may be bipartisan answers, which is the only way to move forward.

Are their limitations with ACA? Of course. Everyone is aware of that, I think. But throwing the baby out with the bathwater won’t help, if by help, you mean, care for the most vulnerable, provide affordable access to quality care and build on the most basic values upon which this nation is founded.

It is also absolutely vital that mental health care and addiction treatment be included in any health care plan.  Refusal to care for someone’s mind and spirit, along with their body, means that that inevitably, they will need more help medically, because all of those aspects are intertwined.

I know, personally, my family would have deteriorated had we not had access to the depth and breadth of care available by health professionals, including mental health care because sometimes the burdens of life become too great to carry alone — and when you are all struggling, it is hard to hold each other up.

As a result of being on Medicaid Expansion, we were able to access what we needed to become stronger and healthier — and rebuild our lives when they just as easily could have fallen apart.

Donne ends “No Man Is An Island” by writing

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

My hope and prayer is that rather than hearing the bells ring out at the funerals of those who will die because of a lack of quality health care, they can ring out for joy that we are a nation that cares, embracing the values that the Constitution established and truly securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Shedding Fear, Despair And Outrage

My senior year of seminary I gave up cynicism for Lent.

My life, at that point, was literally out of my control. Approved for ordination, my placement was in the hands of the Conference of Bishops, which held a draft of all the eligible candidates to decide where we would end up going, geographically.

It would have been easy to become completely cynical at that point in my life. So, I made a deliberate choice to avoid it. I told everyone I knew I was giving up cynicism for Lent and asked them to hold me accountable.

And they did.

I needed to remain positive and was basically forced to trust the Holy Spirit or else friends and classmates would be in my face. And it worked. Both in terms of where I ended up and in the attitude I took in heading back home to southwest Minnesota. I became a far less cynical person and learned to trust the guiding hand of God along the way.

So this year, I am trying to give up despair and outrage for Lent.

Lately it seems like there has been a lot of fear. Some of it is legitimate. For example, I can’t imagine what young Dreamers, who trusted the system when they registered for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and are now living in the reality that their trust might be betrayed, are going through.

Some of it is the result of fabrications, prejudice and misdirection, like the fear of refugees committing terrorist acts in the U.S. (Fact: Refugees have committed zero acts of terrorism in the U.S. since the Refugee Act of 1980.)

And so often my response to that fear, whether the legitimate fears of those in the shadows or the fact that people believe the fabrications, is with pure and unbridled outrage and anger, or else despair, which is fear without hope.  And I am beginning to wonder how helpful either of those responses are.

The thing is, I know that there is so much that I cannot do to change things, simply because there are systems at work that are bigger than me. Elections have consequences, and some of what has been done cannot be undone. At least right now. So often as not, I find myself ranting, raving and tilting at windmills.

Oh, make no mistake, I believe in advocacy with all of my heart. I will call, I will speak up, and I will educate. I believe in the power of those actions and the importance of an engaged citizenry.

But I also know that unless I commit to concrete pro-active actions that make a difference, I will become filled with fear, overwhelmed by despair and driven by misdirected outrage — creating more walls instead of bridges at a time when we need to build more connections with others rather than sever the ones we have.

So what to do? One of my favorite Bible passages is, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear.” (1 John 4:18-19). I know my love is hardly perfect, but I also know that when I love, I am able to cast away the negativity that prevents me from being an instrument of peace.

So my commitment — to myself, my sanity and my desire to be a conduit for the kind of world I want to see — is to deliberately look for a places where I see fear and respond with love. To cast aside despair and outrage and embrace the power of goodness at work in the world.

Not random acts of kindness — but directed acts of love.

Perhaps it will be a conversation with someone expressing views I know to be inaccurate with grace and encouragement rather than judgment, tempering my reaction in order to promote dialogue as opposed to fueling my argument with righteous indignation.

Perhaps it will be to reach out in kindness to an individual who is on the margins or in the shadows, looking for ways to walk in solidarity with those who must feel profoundly alone.

This requires being more deliberate, slowing down and looking around — but it is more meaningful to stop by the International Market and support a business by a recent immigrant than to buy a random cup of coffee for a person behind me in the line at Caribou.

Perhaps it will mean quieting a voice of rage with a vision of peace. And maybe that voice will be my own.

I just know that I need to do this — for my own sake — because I can’t survive when I am consumed with outrage and despair. It tears down my soul and weakens my spirit. It forces me to be less than what I know I am called to be.

Instead, I need to be an agent of love. I want to reflect the only thing that can cast out fear in an often very scary world and find the bravery to stay focused and stay positive rather than weighed down and defeated.

My hope is that just as those 40 days of Lent so many years ago altered my world view and allowed me to be less cynical, that these 40 days of redirection will do the same with my feelings of despair and outrage.

I am not going to turn off my Facebook feed or ignore the news of the world. To do so is to assume a place of privilege since my well-being is not being immediately compromised, as is the case for those who lurk in the shadows, live on the edge of poverty or suffer the pain of an abusive system.

But I am not going to let what is transpiring in the world take my Spirit and my joy away from me or keep me from working tirelessly as a force for good. Because that would be a cynical response. And I gave that up years ago.


PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Uganda Journal, Day 11

Travel in Uganda is all part of the experience. And our journey from Adjumani back to Entebbe was indeed quite the experience.

Our original plan was to take the bus — it would have been far cheaper, albeit less comfortable, and we wanted to be good stewards of our funds. Unfortunately, we went to book it too late in the week, and the Sunday morning bus was full.

We explored a few options, including an overnight bus or perhaps busing back Monday morning and then going straight to the airport. I nixed that idea. I like to be a good steward and all but I also know my limits, and taking a 10-hour (if we were lucky) African bus and then going through the traffic of Kampala straight to the airport to begin a 34-hour ride home would have taxed my limits, and I was afraid it would break me, or at least render me useless for a good week — and I needed to be back at work the day after I arrived.

We finally decided that the best option was to see if we could find a driver at the last minute and as luck would have it, we did. I was a bit nervous about a driver we didn’t know. Drivers can be aggressive, pass on hills and take unnecessary risks. To be honest, my only trepidation about this whole trip was my concern about transportation safety.

Fortunately, Jacob was an outstanding driver, far safer and more careful than anyone we had. I realized this almost immediately. It was a dry and windy day, and the dirt on the roads was blowing. When a car was in front of you, it created blizzard like conditions — only worse because the red clay dirt tornado created zero visibility immediately.

I suspect had we had our first driver, he would have tried to pass in the storm —completely unsure of who was bearing down on us — and barreled on until he came to the next vehicle, and passed again. Jacob, however, slowed down and let the cars get ahead of us, which was the safest route.

The good news was we only had dirt roads for the first hour and a half of our journey. Previously, half the way to Entebbe was unpaved, but one of the positives of accepting refugees was increased infrastructure, including new paved roads.

The Chinese did the paving — they secure the hearts and minds of the Ugandan people by helping with development tasks, hiring Ugandans to do it and then securing mineral rights in the process. Not a bad way to develop — both a country and relationships.

John, Denise, our translator, Daniel, and his brother, John, were in the vehicle. When we dropped John off near the refugee camp where he lived, there was a group of people waiting for a bus to Gulu. Rural buses come at random times, so they simply sit and wait until one comes. A friend of Daniel’s was among the crowd, and Daniel asked if we could give him a ride to Gulu. Not thinking twice, we said yes.

Not long after Simon, Daniel’s friend, had joined us, we were flagged down by members of the military. It isn’t uncommon for police to flag you down on the road — basically they are looking for some “insurance” money from the driver, so that they will come and help you if you need them. If it sounds like extortion, it is.

However, this was the first time military pulled us over. They completely ignored John, Denise and I, but they wanted Daniel and Simon’s papers.  Daniel had his passport, with an outdated student visa, but all Simon had was a piece of paper. Getting a passport from a failing nation state like South Sudan is hard when you are fleeing it while being attacked.

Now to be fair, I don’t fully understand what the rules are regarding movement of refugees or what exactly was happening, but I do know that this soldier continued to harangue Simon until Simon returned his paper with 20,000 shillings. After that, the soldier told me to move over, and he sat next to me, with his loaded AK 47 pressed hard against my leg as motioned for Jacob to take off driving. We drove past the armed vehicle that his fellow soldiers were in, and he motioned for them to take off as well. And off we went, on a joy ride with a loaded rifle pressing into my flesh.

I honestly don’t know how far we drove. All I know was that it was silent in our vehicle, and it was far enough for there to be a distinct mark on my leg from the AK 47 when the soldier finally told Jacob to pull over, and he got out to rejoin a group of soldiers. Before he got out, he looked at me and asked, with a laugh, “Did my rifle bother you.” To which I responded with complete understatement, “A little bit.”

After he left, I gave 20,000 Shillings to Simon. He initially refused, but Daniel told him it would make me feel better. It did. It was frustrating to see the most vulnerable — those who have literally nothing — shaken down. But I also know that the soldiers get their pay this way, too. It is a vicious cycle, were those that are in power prey upon those that don’t. I can’t always make it right but this time I could.

We continued on to Gulu, where we stopped briefly so I could purchase some indigenous crafts at a local market. I was glad to be able to buy them directly from the crafters, and I did not bargain because the prices were so outstanding to begin with.

Shortly after leaving Gulu, Daniel asked if we could visit a refugee village where one of his mothers and sisters lived. I will be writing later more about Daniel’s whole story, as it is fascinating, but for the purpose of this blog, suffice it to say that anyone who says they have a complicated blended family structure has NOTHING on the Sudanese.

To get there, we had to venture past the slums in one of the towns we were driving through. It was a small slum — nothing like the slums of Kampala, but the difference between the refugee camps and the slums was evident. Slums are where hope goes to die in developing countries — with people living in squalor, taken advantage of by everyone, crime rampant and filth abundant.

The camp itself, further up the road, was more developed and an interesting contrast to what we had seen in the north. These folks had been here for a while, and it felt very much like a settled village. We visited with Daniel’s family —gracious and kind — and before we left, his mother prayed for us. I never cease to be astounded by African spirituality. The level of gratitude and understanding of the power of prayer continued to humble me.

We drove back to the main road after this diversion, continuing our journey to Kampala, repeatedly being pulled over by police who were checking our driver’s records. Then, at one point, we passed a lights blaring military procession headed north on the road. It was clear something was happening but as it is the case in places like Uganda, no one is ever likely to know what it was. The papers were quiet the next morning. As African rulers go, Uganda’s leader isn’t bad — a far cry from the days of Idi Amin. But it nonetheless is an authoritarian autocracy, where a strong man and military power rule the day.

Finally, we arrived in Kampala, and then our driver’s one limitation quickly became apparent. He had never driven in Kampala. You could tell with his tentativeness that this was not going to go well. Driving in a Kampala is an act of aggression — cars and motorcycles everywhere, no clear lanes, people walking amidst the traffic and a continuous surge forward. Also, he had no idea where he was going and no GPS.

After a series of starts and stops, with him on his phone, clearly desperate, he finally pulled over and we waited. And we waited. And we waited. Finally, a friend came driving up to us on a Boda Boda (motorcycle taxi) and got into the car and started driving. He had asked a friend in Kampala to come and help us. People are good that way.

We made it downtown without incident, dropping Daniel off so he could visit his mother in the heart of the city. I had one gut-wrenching moment when a woman and a tiny baby came up to the vehicle looking for money as we waited for the light to change. Although I know John would have despised it, and as someone who has worked with homeless I know it is wrong to support that behavior, had my window been able to open I would have given her 10,000 shillings. The face of the baby and the look on the mother’s face haunted me and even if it was as much for me as for her, sometimes you do what you know you aren’t supposed to do. The world is broken, and a Band-Aid won’t fix it, but sometimes you just need to try. But the light changed before I could lower the window and we took off.

Ironically, we took off the wrong way down a one way street. I realized it as soon as I saw the lights ahead and alerted everyone rather loudly. Fortunately, the driver responded quickly, and we got turned around before we died. But that is a metaphor for how I felt at the light with the child — feeling as though she was on a one way ready to crash, and perhaps I could have helped turn her around, even for a day. But instead, I will see that face in the window of the dark night.

Yes, by this time it was dark of night. And we still weren’t at our hotel. Over 12 hours after we left, for what should have been a perhaps 9- to 100-hour ride. And so we drove, and we drove, and we drove. Kampala is seemingly endless, and it’s an even longer road to Entebbe, on Lake Victoria, where the airport is and our hotel was.

Finally, we were close — but still not there. In fact, we drove past the turn off to our hotel not once, not twice but at least three times before we finally managed to end up at the African Roots hotel — over 13½ hours after we left! Some journeys just seem to go on and on.

After arriving and settling in to our rooms, which I was sharing with a rather adorable little lizard that crept in with my bags, I sat back to reflect. This journey that took so many twists and turns along the way, finally ended as the last day of my 53rd journey around the sun ended. Tomorrow would be my 53rd birthday. I was relieved to have one journey over, and excited about what the next day —and the next journey around the sun — would entail. Because life is what happens while you are on the way.