Possessing Unusual Hope

As I sit here typing this, I am overlooking Huia and the Manukau Harbour, I am gazing out toward Whatipu and the great powerful Pacific Ocean. Bees are buzzing about, a variety of birds are swooping in and out of the freshly blossoming Pohutakawa tree that hangs over the incoming tide and all the colours that surround us sings of life. Cyrus and Muriwai constantly and gleefully play in the water, sand and grass, soaking in that abundance of life. When the tide retreats, our little whanau* wanders around this beach’s many jagged points, discovering a whole new world of life; under rocks, in pools of water and in every crack and cranny. We marvel at all the crabs, oyster catchers, mussels, herons, pukeko, starfish and jellyfish. Its beauty is virtually impossible to describe. Life, an abundance of life, is happening in Huia! This trip, our Creator even blessed us with finding a living octopus resting in one of the rock pools; a sight many of the longtime Huia locals have never been privileged of witnessing.

As I write this, the Nicholls whanau has managed to do a lot of things in our 4 weeks over here in Aotearoa*. We have experienced the raw and splendid beauty of Mangawhai Heads, Waitakere Ranges and climbed to the top of Auckland’s own volcanic Rangitoto Island. Cyrus and Muriwai daily soak it all in; each and every experience. They love it. Beth and I love it.

Yet! Yes, there’s a yet! A big fat Yet! We do not live here; we live in Chicago. A city that is flat, grey, overcrowded, and reeks of violence and smog. Chicago’s a city that easily outnumbers the whole population of New Zealand, has death-producing freezes in winter and stifling heat waves in the summer.

There are many more differences I could elaborate on; freedom, politics, guns, healthcare, the social welfare system and fresh food are just a few. Admittedly, my heart is attracted to the laid-back, healthier and peaceful lifestyle seen and experienced in this small pacific island, where all my loving extended family lives; this country that is still keeping itself “somewhat” free from the all-embracing power of corporations, trigger happy politicians and money hungry lobbyists. This country that remains “somewhat” void of the international chaos.

Before I go on, I should and need to clarify a few things; New Zealand isn’t utopia! It does have many issues of its own. To name a few; it has relatively high rates of crime and violence, chronic alcoholism and drug abuse, poverty does exist, there are huge disparities between our wealthy and poor citizens and also between our rich variety of ethnic groups and the cost of living is very high. A few years ago, I myself, personally experienced a negative side of New Zealand culture by being the victim of two violent robberies; firstly, I had two men place a knife to my throat, only to shove me in the trunk (boot) of my car, leaving me in the darkness for a couple hundred dollars. Just over a year after that robbery, I was beaten up by a group of young gang-bangers for a few coins and they left me with stitches in my chin.

Despite these couple of incidents, Aotearoa would naturally be “my country of choice” to raise our family and grow old in. Beth would wholeheartedly agree, and she was born in Illinois! Yet, we don’t live in the serene, peaceful little beach-town community called Huia, and in a month we’ll be flying back over to our home in Uptown, where it’ll be gray, dark and freezing cold. We’ll be heading back to a neighborhood that is presently experiencing hostile gang warfare. We’ll be leaving summer and clinging onto winter!

WHY? WHY? WHY? Is the question I am repeatedly asked. Whether in Chicago or West Auckland, people are intrigued. That intrigue only increases when they realize I’m not living in Chicago’s Gold-Coast, but living in an intentional Christian community (JPUSA) and working with and amongst homeless people at Cornerstone Community Outreach.

“Why would you leave the idealized land of hobbits to join a community that embraces those who are rejected, dejected, despised, criminalized and homeless in a part of town where a vocal group are constantly attempting to shove ‘the least of these’ further into their shallow graves?”

The answer to all the “whys” is actually very simple. The answer is easy for some to understand, yet incomprehensible to others. The undeniable answer is; Beth and I know God has called us to work with, live amongst and compassionately love Uptown’s rejected, dejected, despised, criminalized and homeless group of men, women and children. This answer is a powerful reality to us, causing people to either blankly stare at us in confusion or wholeheartedly agree.
In stating all this, I need to clarify some more points; despite having to constantly wrestle with the ugliness of American, Chicago and Uptown politics, which loves to exploit the weak; despite seeing the horrible reality of mass incarceration and the “war on drugs”; despite the constant sweat of summer and the frigid cold of winter; despite lacking one’s conveniences or luxuries when living in an intentional community; despite the lack of fresh air and despite not being able to choose my own food, car or laundry times; despite the ringing of gun shots echoing throughout the evening and so many more "despites" that penetrate our lives daily….

Hope, yes hope, shouts loudly and clearly into our lives!

Hope, yes hope, causes us to live and fight for a new day!

Hope, yes hope, is constantly rising from the stench of death!

Hope, yes hope, that unusual four letter word, sings in places where it shouldn’t. That is the power of the gospel. People, technology and systems try to kill hope, but it still lives and is growing stronger. Hope sings to me under certain rocks at Huia, at first they just look like lifeless rocks baking in the sun until we approach them and we see all the snails, chitons, mussels and oysters clinging onto them. We push that rock over, only to discover more life; hundreds of crabs scurrying about, in amongst the dozens of other life forms. What seemed utterly lifeless; actually radiates with life! What seems utterly hopeless; actually radiates with an abundance of hope!

Why do I live in Chicago? Why not in Auckland? God’s calling and His Kingdom is not a torturous enterprise. I am living a life filled with beauty, hope, mystery, challenge and love. I am honored to live in and be part of JPUSA and Uptown’s homeless community. I love where I live. I love where I work. I love who I live with. I love who I work with. I love the homeless community I am now part of. I love all the people I get to share my life with, as they share theirs with me. I love how my family has been accepted in their family, and they are accepted into mine. I love how they show me what faith, love and hope really is.

Reality continues and truth hurts, because I will always miss and love my friends and whanau in the land so elegantly called Aotearoa. Yet, my people make an impossible situation possible, so we can travel “down-under” every few years to rest and experience the beauty, rawness and life of New Zealand. My people make it possible to live and enjoy two vastly different worlds. My people make it possible to fill that empty spot. Thank you, mum and dad, Titirangi Baptist Church, friends and relatives who joined together, allowing us to frequent my homeland and enjoy what I once took for granted. Thank you again. 

*whanau is the Maori name for family. 
*Aotearoa is the Maori name for New Zealand; meaning the Land of the Long White Cloud.
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