Living a Better Story–Don Miller’s Seminar

As I navigate through the transition from WL Hinsdale to YL Guatemala, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking/processing/dreaming, but not too much time writing any of that down. Then I saw Don Miller’s blog about his seminar in Portland and thought it was a better reason than most to really spend time reflecting on the story I’ll be living with my life for the next couple years. Here’s a link to his blog for more info on the conference:

And a video that explains a bit more:

And my story…

Exposition: In a story, context defines character, and a character’s story intricately depends on the surrounding characters. Groundwork is important. The story I’m living in the next few years cannot be told in isolation; it depends intricately on the stories of those around me. So that’s where I’ll start.

Story One: Kevin Two years ago Kevin played host to our Young Life work team in Zone 3 of Guatemala City. He flirted with the gringas and won our hearts. His eyes were alive and shimmering; he seemed uniquely exempt from the reality of the streets around him. This summer when I entered Z3, Kevin wasn’t there to meet us. In one year, Kevin made inroads with the gang leaders—in light of an absent father, they offered means to feed his mom and sister. Things went wrong like they always do, and now Kevin is just another tortured victim shoved in the mass graves reserved for the poor; he is just another slave to the violent cycle of poverty. And Sonja, his girlfriend, is just another teenager left to mother Kevin’s child while still navigating adolescence herself.

Travis and the employees of Abonorganico.

Story Two: Nedi Nedi was one of the first employees of Abonorganico, a composting company that recently opened in Guatemala City. The company runs in conjunction with Young Life in Guatemala and seeks to provide positive employment for YL kids and others in Zone 3. In addition to stable jobs, each employee attends school, financial management classes, and regular discipleship meetings with the owner, Travis. For the first time in his 27 years, Nedi is working outside of the city dump, he’s able to return to school and work toward his GED, and the allure of gang life and the quick fix it provides is a fading memory. Abonorganico, its mission and vision, are breaking the cycle of poverty in Z3 and allowing Nedi’s life to reflect the composting process itself: beauty from ashes.

A Character: This is me. I am the protagonist in the story of my life. I’m a daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, friend, leader, mentor, teacher, and student. I love good coffee. I’m training for a marathon. I’m Dutch. I work for Young Life. I read, I write, and I cry in most movies. 3 years ago my story collided with Kevin’s and Nedi’s and I’ve been on a journey ever since. I’ve loved every chapter in my journey, but I’ve also come to realize that a greater story is calling me. And, “once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don’t have a choice.”

A Character Who Wants Something: According to James Scott Bell, an inciting incident is a doorway through which a protagonist cannot return. Looking back, I can see those doorways, those invitations that beckoned me along on my journey.

•An invitation to Young Life student leadership compelled me to sign up at the YL table on the first day of college, and eventually led to my current position on Young Life staff in the Chicago suburbs.

•A deep hatred for Shakespeare’s Iago during Senior English landed me in a love affair with literature and an English Education degree.

•While student teaching in Guatemala I became enamored with the past, present, and future of a country whose story is stamped with violence and pain.

•My time on YL staff fostered a passion for outreach and desire to step away from the English classroom and teach kids the greatest narrative every written, the story of a God who deeply loves his children.

A Character Who Wants Something And Overcomes Conflict. These inciting incidents cultivated a readiness in me. When an invitation to join the YL team in Guatemala City came, I said yes. I’m returning to Guatemala to invite kids like Kevin, their friends, and their families to take a look at Jesus and the story he’s writing for their lives. The story I’m writing with Young Life Guatemala rises from immediate external conflict: money and language. I’m required to fundraise my entire 3 year budget before I leave. When I am free to move to Guatemala, I need to raise my Spanish level from conversational to fluent in both speaking and writing.

This conflict is by no means insurmountable. I have the opportunity to invite people into the unfolding story of YL Guatemala, to develop ministry and language partners, and to live each day in dependence on the Lord for his provision and direction.

The entrance to El Recuerdo, one of the communities in Z3 where YL is present.

The real conflict comes once I’m in Guatemala. Zone 3, the community in which YL currently ministers, is a slave to the cycle of poverty. As Kevin’s story shows, it’s a vicious cycle that spares few. Education and employment opportunities are low. Gang and drug involvement is high. Most people spend up to 12 hours a day scavenging the neighboring city dump for recyclables—which they sell back to companies for 1-2 dollars a day. Empty bellies and crying children force people to make decisions they might not otherwise make, and the cycle continues.

Another main conflict is simply the pain of everyday life. I will not be able to change physical circumstances; I will not be able to save all my friends in Z3. I will have to learn to trust that the Truth of the Gospel transcends all physical circumstances.

Indigenous Mayan dress is a cultural staple in Guatemala.

Conflict also stems from syncretism between Christian and Mayan faith. Mayan Spirituality is an active and driving force in Guatemala. Historically, the Spanish incorporated aspects of Mayan Religions into Catholicism. When Spain called for a report, the conquistadores could honestly say how many Mayans were worshipping in the cathedrals. But they were worshipping the same Mayan gods and goddesses as before. This mixture of religion exists today. A person may say he believes in God, but it is not the God of Scripture. I will have to learn to navigate culture, language, and experience in order to sift through the voices that speak lies into people’s lives about the nature of God and teach Gospel truth.

A Character Who Wants Something and Overcomes Conflict To Get It. The main events of a story build toward a climax, a point from which the characters and conflict find resolution. I’m confident that the story I’m living is one that will leave me with more questions than answers, but that does not mean that I cannot seek resolution, or in Scriptural terms, it doesn’t mean I cannot seek to be an agent of redemption in the brokenness that is Z3.

Relationship and Gospel: Relationship is a foundational principle of Young Life. We’re an incarnational ministry. We show up. We walk where Jesus would walk and love as Jesus would love. My role in Guatemala City reminds me of one of the closing images of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland:

Who is the third who walks always beside you / When I count, there are only you and I together. But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you.

As I walk alongside friends in Z3, I must constantly point to the third that walks with us—the glimmer of hope that I know is Jesus Christ. Ultimately, healing comes by, through, and for Jesus Christ.

Jobs: The truth of Christ’s love will fall dead on the ears of people if I do not accompany it with concrete actions. Just as Jesus Christ is the visible image of an invisible God, my actions and physical help are the concrete picture of abstract truth. I am committed to the vision of Abonorganico and seek to replicate it. By creating more jobs for people in these communities we begin to break the cycle of poverty.

We want to see a gardening project and skills training (specifically knitting and seamstress work) in Zone 3. Both will meet both physical and practical needs in the community. Both will provide stable work that will enable men and women to be present with and provide for their families. In order to move forward, we need to supplies and tools to pursue both avenues: seed, land, gardening tools; yarn, knitting needles, patterns, skilled trainers.

Education: Another way to break the cycle of poverty is through education. I want to use my teaching certificate and passion for education to help people achieve literacy. I want to set up tutoring programs for kids in school and teach classes for people who were forced to drop out. This goal is only attainable with access to Spanish curriculum, books, writing material, and school supplies.

In addition to these practical means of seeking healing in Zone 3, I also have some bigger picture dreams and vision for my time in Guatemala.

Young Life Americano: There is a class of kids approaching middle school age whose parents are excited about WyldLife. This is an exciting prospect because, in Guatemala, the distribution of wealth is unbelievably disproportionate. 10% of the people have 90% of the money. Those 10% send their children to schools like Americano. Kids in this school will be the politicians, lawyers, and business owners whose decisions directly impact the kids in Z3. As generations of Americano kids’ lives are transformed by the Gospel of Christ and God’s heart for the poor, there is potential for real change in Guatemala.

The current YL Staff team in Guatemala City--the team I will be joining this fall!

Sustainability: Ultimately, the efforts of any foreign missionary are not sustainable. Only indigenous leadership is sustainable. My goal is to master Spanish and take Seminary classes in Guatemala. I’ve started my Masters in Theology through Fuller Theological Seminary, but desire to learn at the feet of Latino theologians. As I learn global theology I will be better prepared to equip national leaders. YL has 4 Guatemalan staff members; three of whom are from Z3. I want to connect these people to outside resources and help provide the tools they need to develop Guatemalan leaders.

Conclusion: A story does not exist for itself; it exists to be told. Stories are meant to draw people into new and different worlds, they’re meant to challenge, to encourage, to change. When Jesus is asked why he teaches in parables, or stories, he responds:

If there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight.

This is the story I want to live with my life. I want to live a story that invites others into the reality of the kingdom; I want to live a story that creates readiness and receptivity; I want to live a story that points to Christ. Kevin’s story, Nedi’s story, my story mean nothing outside of the Metanarrative that began at creation, moved toward a cross, took a look inside an empty tomb, and awaits a second coming.

So here I am. Waiting and hoping and looking toward the final resolution. In this inbetween time, God’s heart for justice and gift of agency compel me to go and do my part in drawing every inch of creation toward his intended purpose.

Why Me? I love thinking in terms of story and narrative. I love thinking about my story in light of God’s story. I love A Million Miles and have been using it in small groups with YL kids all year. I think I’ll benefit from being around visionary people who want to do something great with their stories. I believe we’ll have a lot to offer one another and discover that we can help each other live out our stories.


One thought on “Living a Better Story–Don Miller’s Seminar

  1. Annette! You’re vision is amazing and I can’t wait to see what God does through you in Guatemala! Praying for you.

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