Saturday, April 2, 2016

Get pumped!

Those of you that read my blog regularly (ahem, Mom) know that I have had the personal delight and professional privilege of taking engineering students abroad for the last decade.  Most of the service-learning projects we have worked on have been small scale renewable energy projects that involved solar- or hydro-generated electricity.  But in addition to electricity, these trips have allowed me to get a taste - pun intended - of working on water projects too. Ba dump bump!

So over the last year or two, I have read a few books on water well drilling, aquifers, water treatment techniques, and even the issues of justice associated with water access. I began raising money to buy a water well drilling rig, and was grateful to receive a Baylor University Missions Research Grant to bring my coffers up to the $20,000 required. I couple of months ago I ordered one, and today I was able to bring this new drilling rig out to a friend's house to drill a practice well.  Five students and I spent the morning and afternoon assembling the rig, leveling the ground, and drinking coffee - not necessarily in that order. 

[Righty tighty lefty loosey]

 My goal is to learn the process of using it to drill boreholes in areas with water access problems. This practice well is for a buddy's large garden, but the next one will be for a colonia outside of Laredo, Texas.  A group of engineering students and faculty are planning to go there this July to drill a well for a community garden. At present, the colonia has to bring in water with trucks.  Because water is harder to access, gardening isn't being done, and other sources of food are far away; it's a true food desert.  We hope this well will help the community grow more fresh vegetables and brew more coffee - not necessarily in that order.

[It looks smaller and lighter in photos, as do I.  See the Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes blooming in the background?  Ahh, springtime in Texas.]

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Living Among the Students

I have been taking undergraduate engineering students abroad for a decade.  Together, we have traveled to Kenya, Honduras, and Haiti doing renewable energy projects of various kinds, and I have spent over six months of my life living alongside students on these trips. I love it. We are together 24/7, we eat all our meals together, we work together, we sing and pray together, and we share our lives with each other. Sometimes we have emergencies together - and I take them to hospitals, hold their vomit bags, or remove snakes from the premises!  We talk about global poverty, the meaning of justice, and how to come to grips with our own wealth. These times together help us grow close, and the relationships I form with students on these trips keep me coming back year after year. 

These experiences living alongside students have been rewarding, but now, I am taking it to the next level. I am grateful and humbled to announce that I have been selected to be the next Faculty Master of Teal Residential College at Baylor University! I am beside myself with excitement.  What does this mean?  It means I'm so excited I have split in two.

No, it means that Martha and I are moving into the dorms, baby! Teal Residential College is home to about 350 undergraduates, most of whom are engineering, computer science, or nursing majors. It has a large apartment for the Faculty Master that we will move into this summer. We will be involved in all kinds of student activities and will host students in our apartment frequently.

[Teal Residential College at night]

We're not supposed to use the word "dorm" anymore. Instead, Teal is a Residential College. The Teal FAQ webpage says:
"Residential Colleges are designed to provide a culture that fosters academic excellence, intensive faculty-student interaction and a rich culture steeped in Baylor tradition. Life in a Residential College is led by the Faculty Master, a faculty member who resides on campus, living among the students."

Interestingly, the title "Faculty Master" is a traditional title that goes back to the Oxford-Cambridge models for residential colleges, but has been criticized lately in the United States because of the association of the word "master" with slavery.  In fact, Harvard University recently changed the title of their "House Masters" to "Faculty Deans" because of this association.  I have to say, one thing I am genuinely uncomfortable with is the title.  "Faculty Master" not only has slavery connotations, it has dominance and control connotations that make me cringe a little.  I have been thinking about alternative titles: Faculty Mascot, Redneck-in-Residence, Only A Master of Evil Darth - which is your favorite?

One of my favorite titles for Christ is Emmanuel.  It means "God with us".  To me, it conveys love and compassion and initiative on God's part. The incarnation: God choosing to become like us in order to relate to us, reconcile with us, love us.  That's what I want to do at Teal. Maybe a good title would be Faculty With Us.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Dad's Eulogy

My dad grew up in the small town of Ralls, Texas – a farming town near Lubbock. At the age of three his parents brought home his baby sister, Francine.  Dad “celebrated” by gathering the chicken’s eggs and smashing them against the concrete cattle trough. At a very young age he decided to do some “work” on the family car. He loosened the lug nuts on one of the wheels – which later came off!  He liked to play with his bow and arrow, shooting arrows straight up in the air and running to get out of the way!  Once day he and Francine were playing in the sandbox. There was a wooden shade above the sand and dad was on top of it with his bow and arrow. He yelled down through a knothole in the wood “Francine, watch out, I’m going to shoot an arrow through the hole”.  She looked up through the hole and said “what?” just as he let the arrow loose. She was not seriously injured.

As a child he developed polio. Though it was a non-paralyzing form of the disease, he still lost the ability to walk for a season and had to learn all over again, starting by crawling like a baby.  I wonder, sometimes, if his childhood polio predisposed him to another neuromuscular disease, Parkinson’s, that eventually took his life.

In high school he raised pigs with 4H Club.  His mama pig’s name was Eudora.  I’m glad he got that out of his system before he named me.  He worked as a janitor at the post office and on the farm during summers – moving 30 foot lengths of irrigation pipe in the mud to water the cotton.  He managed to make enough money to buy a new car that he took to college.

Dad went to Texas Tech University and took all the classes in computers that they offered. He learned how to program with punch cards, played coronet in the marching band, and worked in the chow hall. He graduated in 1965 with a math degree and moved to Houston to work for Texaco as a FORTRAN programmer.  He worked his entire career at Texaco – 38 years – in various computer-oriented roles.

I was born in 1967. Although my mom and dad divorced and both remarried, they remained friends – living only two blocks from each other.  After my step father’s death in 2008, Dad, Loretta, and my mom would occasionally go eat Mexican food together and enjoy each other’s company.

Memories that stand out to me from my childhood are going camping with him and spending a lot of time playing Monopoly. Dad had an antique Monopoly board and had played games against himself as a kid. He memorized the rents for the various properties – he always won.  He loved camping and saw the fingerprints of God in creation.  We had a pop-up camper. Once it fell off the trailer hitch and dad instinctively hit the breaks – but then the camper rolled into the back of the car!

He was the Cubmaster of my Cub Scout Pack, and the leader of our Webelos group. He helped me build a large wooden fence for a Boy Scout project.  He taught me to drive a stick shift in a Toyota Supra with louvers on the hatchback. In high school I got my first speeding ticket in that car – though I’m not sure I ever told him about that.

In the early 80s he bought an Apple IIe home computer. He and I spent a lot of time with it. He taught me how to write computer programs and we created a simple game that allowed you to drive a tank and shoot a little cannon.  I remember having a conversation with him about binary and hexadecimal number systems. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that not every kid had these types of experiences.

Sometimes I tell my own students a story about my dad.  I tell them how I made a D in 9th grade Algebra, and that I had to sit down with him every night to do my Algebra homework so that I could bring up my grade. He realized that one of my problems was trying to skip too many steps and he told me not to be lazy, but to write out every step of the equations we were solving. And of course, it worked. I coach my own students the same way today.

[This is my favorite picture of my dad and I. It was taken around 2001.]

Dad was always open and honest with me about his faith. He wasn’t afraid to say that he didn’t know the answer to a question, though he usually did. He had had a faith struggle of his own as a teenager that was born out of a doctrinal split in his family: his father attended the Church of Christ, but his mother attended First United Methodist. He later embraced the Baptist tradition, and he and I were both baptized by emersion on the same day in this room, in fact.

Dad took part in Bible Study Fellowship for many years, and because of his enthusiasm about the things he was learning, I also did BSF as a young adult.  He was also a long time member of a Men’s Bible Study that met at 6:00 AM – some of his best friendships were made with that group.  He participated in Evangelism Explosion training here at FBC, and then he really seemed to find his ministerial calling in Stephen Ministries.

For about 10 years, starting in 2002, he and Loretta both served in this way. For those of you who don’t know much about Stephen Ministries, it’s a one-on-one ministry that pairs folks like my dad with people who are struggling in one way or another – maybe in their health, or with grief, or because of divorce, or a loss of a job – it can be anything. Stephen Ministers don’t have to be an expert in all these ways that people can suffer, because their main job is to listen.  Dad met weekly with men and just listened to them, offering encouragement without agenda or bias.  He became their true friend and confidant. 

This ministry was a great fit for his gifts and talents, because dad was always a slow talker anyway. People with faster mouths might actually be less well suited for this type of ministry.

I know he would want to encourage you all to find a way to use your own gifts and talents to love your neighbor as yourself.

I would like to end with a quote from C.S. Lewis. In recent years, every time I have read it I thought of dad and his struggle with Parkinson’s – and I usually wept.

"But if you are a poor creature--poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels--saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion--nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends--do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day He will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all - not least yourself."

Thank you for being here in honor of my dad and in support of our family.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Whales, They Love Me

Three things made today a great day! Three things happened that punctuated my day with excessive exclamation points and weeping-for-joy emojis. Three brief surprises burst forth from the surface of a day, otherwise characterized as "pretty good," like three blue whales breaching the surface of the ocean, showing me their bellies and yelling in whale language, "we love youuuuuuu!"

It all started like this: I got up early (for a Sunday) and met a few hundred other folks for the Mission Waco Walk for the Homeless event at 8:00 AM. It was a walking tour to visit several of the organizations around town that provide services to homeless folks. It was part advocacy, part education, part cardio. As the crowd walked from the shelter to the food bank to the veterans services building and so on, a delightful group of bikers blocked traffic for us like motorcycle cops at a funeral. They did a great job keeping us from being run over by early service Episcopalians.

Then I noticed that one of the bikers was my friend Paul who has a cool beard and a pony tail and plays bass.  Sometimes his band, The 10th Leper, plays music at Church Under the Bridge.  All these things make Paul pretty cool in my book. But to top it all off like the whip on top of my low fat caramel macchiato - today I found out that he rides a Harley!

[This photo taken from Paul's facebook page is credited to Souther Photography]

He agreed to let me ride on the back of his bike for a few blocks and it was fun to ride in the open air on this beautiful morning in downtown Waco. Its engine grumbled "potato potato potato" noises like a panting dragon.  Bucket list.

After rejoining the crowd I had the privilege of walking alongside Judge Ken Starr. He and his wife Alice were also participating in the Walk for the Homeless, though sadly he missed the sight of me on the hog.  He was very interested to hear about what Engineers with a Mission had been doing in Haiti with JAMES and Mission Waco. He was particularly excited to hear about our new Humanitarian Engineering program at Baylor. He and Alice were so attentive and engaged, and their support means a lot to me. Towards the end of our conversation, he told me something very exciting! Unfortunately, I don't feel the liberty to put it on the internet!!  So the second high point of my day will have to be redacted like Hillary's emails released by the State Department.  He said ahey! you think you're clever getting past my redactions   and that kkdk alk kdakkllkja  aklsdfj.  What's that you say?  Anticlimactic? All that buildup just to be redacted?  Yes well, you're right, it is. What can you do?

[Left to right: Jimmy Dorrell, CEO of Mission Waco
Rob Wolaver, President of Texas State Technical College, Waco
Johnette McKown, President of McLennan Community College
Ken Starr, President and Chancellor of Baylor University
Photo courtesy of Dr. Adam Ecklund, and by "courtesy" I mean stolen from his facebook page without permission.]

The third highlight came later that afternoon. For reasons you might not expect, I purchased a handgun. In fact, I bought my first ever firearm, a .357 magnum revolver.  You see, ever since, like, three months ago when I started thinking about doing humanitarian work with water wells along the Texas/Mexico border, I have been thinking about snakes. In my search to buy a snake gun, I had the opportunity to fire a friend's .357 at night. In the darkness, it was easy to see the huge fireball shoot out of the barrel. And the sound was so loud that it literally made my ears ring. This induced in me some kind of testosterone power pose that normally only comes with watching Monday Night Football or using a large chainsaw. I was hooked after one shot like a junkie.  

[My new gun is on order and won't be in for another week or so. In the meantime, please enjoy this likeness of an European American Armory Corp. Windicator .357 Magnum Revolver.]

So there it is: my three awesome things that happened today. I realize, looking back on them, that these things paint a picture of me. I'm afraid they make me look a bit like a redneck. Not that there's anything wrong with that (jk, I think there is) but in my case, it is simply not true. I refuse, in fact, to be defined by political stereotypes or other social expectations. I simultaneously care about social justice but also own a handgun. I frequently have the privilege to converse with both homeless people and university presidents. I like Harley Davidson motorcycles, but never plan to own one. I am pro-immigration, but also pro-rule of law. I am neither a libertarian nor a socialist. I do, however, speak whale.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Solar Micro-businesses in Haiti

This May, Engineers with a Mission (EM), Baylor Missions, and Justice and Mercy Engineering Society, (JAMES) brought solar energy-based businesses to Ferrier, Haiti, one of the poorest areas of the Western Hemisphere. Mission Waco, the parent organization for JAMES, has had a presence in Ferrier for over 30 years and this was the third annual trip to the area. The longstanding relationships between Mission Waco and the Haitians there are the backbone for the development work done in north-east Haiti.

This year’s solar project was unique in that we had not one, but five installation sites in the areas surrounding Ferrier. We placed five 250 Watt solar panels in the care of carefully selected impoverished families to operate as cell phone charging businesses. These bless the families with a source of income and stimulate the local economy.  Although there is intermittent electricity access in the larger town of Ferrier, the outlying towns of Meillac, Filibert, Merande, Latasse, and La Garene have virtually zero access.  Cell phone owners must pay and often travel to recharge their phone battery.

Financial sustainability is an important goal for all our projects, even if we don't always achieve it. For this reason, we carefully chose to operate the solar systems as microbusinesses. An association was formed between JAMES and the five families, and a contract was signed. As part of their contract the families must pay 45 Haitian Gourdes from their daily earnings (approximately 1 dollar U.S.) as a rental fee. This fee is placed into a savings account to be used to cover future repairs and battery replacements. Borrowing an idea from the micro credit industry, the families have group liability for these rental fees – if someone can’t pay, the others are responsible for covering the fees. Ten weeks after launching these businesses, the rental fees have been 100% paid and about 3200 cell phones have been charged!  Another part of their contract requires that they use the energy they harvest to host gatherings for the community, whether it be setting out a light for children to do school work, hosting church activities, or simply letting the locals play dominoes at night.

[the indoor unit: charge controllers, switches, fuses, inverters, batteries, and a handy table top for holding phones while they charge]

[each family business also has a 250 Watt solar panel mounted near their home]

[part of the team, and seemingly most of the village, commissioning another system]

[while most of the solar panels were ground mounted, this home had a nice flat section of roof that was more secure]

These families were not selected at random. Our friend Zenas, a local pastor with a passion for serving the poor, chose these families because they are Christian leaders in their community. These solar panels are a tool for our Christian brothers and sisters to continue to bless their community.

This year we took a team of 16, 3 professors and 13 engineering students, forming our largest mission group yet. But our team was even larger than this! Our Baylor students worked right alongside local handymen, pastors, carpenters, guides, translators, and community members eager to help.

[Watching everyone do their part reminded us of the body of Christ;
everyone is different but each plays a part.]

We intentionally seek out locals to be a part of our team because it helps our team remain relationally grounded and helps further develop the community.  Hiring out Haitians is a way to provide a source of income to families as well as affirm their talents. One sweet example of this was when our guide and friend, Julio, came to the aid of one of our electrical engineering students who was struggling to eat a fresh coconut. He said, “Sarah, you may know electricity, but I know coconuts,” and then began to prepare the coconut. This story illustrates the interdependent relationships we want to cultivate. It is important that when we go into communities to tend to the physical ailments of poverty, that we do so in a spirit of humility, by understanding our own limitations and respecting the abilities of others.

[Coconut Sarah, myself, and most of the rest of the team]

Our work in Haiti is about more than creating clean energy, boosting the local economy, improving a family’s income, or exposing Baylor students to poverty - all of these are good and part of our trip. But it's also about God’s love for justice, restoration, and transformation in our hearts and the environment around us.  I am thrilled to be a part of it!