Category Archives: Alicia Writes

A Fallow Year

I, the brownest of brown thumbs, have been planting things in my backyard. I planted strawberries in hanging baskets on my deck. They’re already blushing and I can’t wait to eat them. I planted peas, but they’re too shy to make an appearance yet. I also planted potatoes in a trash can. Yep, in a trash can.

As I’ve planted, I’ve learned about dirt. I learned that you shouldn’t plant strawberries where you’ve recently grown potatoes because the potatoes will have leached necessary nutrients from the ground and your strawberries will die of starvation.

I’ve been thinking about dirt a lot and how farmers would plant for six years and let the ground lay fallow for a year (Exodus 23:10). This was practiced by descendants of tribes of Israel-the descendants of God’s chosen people-and not by other tribes.

Nothing would be planted for a full year. The ground would be left to rest, to be fertilized by animal poop, and to recover the nutrients that were lost. My favorite definition of fallow is, “to be let alone.” I love the idea of just leaving the soil alone, of not touching a single grain, or tilling even a row.

Some years we just have to be let alone.

I don’t know about you, but I just survived that kind of year. A year where I got pooped on a lot and it felt like my very bones were leached dry, a fallow year for sure. So many of us on the board of Vigilante Kindness have been navigating fallowness this year, a year where nothing new was planted, a year of letting the soil sit.

I’m incredibly bad at letting the soil sit. I want to do what I want, when I want, but planting doesn’t work that way and neither does following God. That’s a sure way to kill the things you so desperately want to grow in your garden and in your life.

After a year, the farmers would come and tend to the soil. First they’d pull out masses of overgrown, thorny weeds, removing any remaining thing that would suck water and nutrients away from the new crop. Then they’d till, turning the ground over, breaking it up, letting in light, letting in air. The ground would be noticeably darker than the year before, fertile and ready for seeds.

Vigilantes, I didn’t know how to tell you about this year, how to tell you why I didn’t go to Uganda and why I’ve been quiet. I’ve been laying fallow. Maybe you have, too.

Did you know that the root word for fallow is the same root word for Sabbath and that both mean to rest? So rest I did. I didn’t go to Uganda. I didn’t start any new projects. I said no and I listened when God said no to me, which was difficult because I had some thorny pride that needed to be yanked out by the roots.

But the beauty of leaving a field fallow comes at the end of the year, comes in the recovery of what was lost, and in the eventual green of new growth.

A verse that’s been on repeat in my mind is Hosea 10:12.

“Sow with a view to righteousness, reap in accordance with kindness; Break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord until He comes to rain righteousness on you.”

Isn’t that just the best news? In the hardest of times, you can wait with expectation because the time for tending to the fallow ground is coming. Your parched bones can stand with buckets at the ready for the Lord to rain down righteousness on you.

The NIV translation says it a little differently:

“Sow with righteousness and reap the fruit of unfailing love.”

In the throes of my horribly hard year, I can say in my soul that I have known and felt the tender, unfailing love of God.

I hope you have, too. If you need a reminder, come on over, I’ll let you pick the best strawberries and I’ll feed you trash can potatoes. I’ll sit with you-dusty, dry, worn out, fallow, utterly lovely you.

I’ll remind you that you’re God’s chosen person, that it’s good and necessary to rest, and that the time will come for you to break ground again.

But Even If He Does Not

I had a record scratch moment today, one of those pauses in time when my jaw drops, my head whips back for a double take, and the record playing in my mind comes to a needle-screeching halt along with everything around me.

Believe it or not, it happened while I was reading the Bible.

Can I let you in on a little secret? Those moments don’t happen often for me, certainly not as frequently as I’d like, most likely because I don’t read the Bible as often as I intend to. Maybe those moments don’t happen to you that often either. Maybe your Bible is a bit dusty or maybe you don’t even read the Bible. Would you hang here with me for a few minutes anyway?

So there I was poking around in Daniel, poking around half-heartedly because I’ve read Daniel a ton of times. I know the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, I know the story of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and his giant gold statue that he wanted everyone to bow down to, or else be thrown into a furnace of fire. I know this story, I can even recall the felt figures of the characters stuck on the black Sunday School felt board, while I listened and chewed mouthfuls of graham crackers and tried to figure out just who the hell this king was, thinking he could make everyone bow down to his statue.

In case you weren’t indoctrinated with graham crackers and felt board Bible stories, the basic story is this. King Nebuchadnezzar is power-hungry and wants everyone to worship his gods and bow down to this particular hulking gold image he’s had made. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse because they’re Jews who love God. They’re summoned before the king who succinctly orders them to bow down and worship the statue.

We pick up the story in Daniel 3:16.

16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from your majesty’s hand. 18 But even if He does not, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Did you catch that? They recognize God’s ability to save them from flames, but the record scratch moment for me comes in the next verse. “But even if He does not, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

image courtesy of reversingverses.com
image courtesy of reversingverses.com

But even if He does not.

I’m overcome by this phrase. I’m not sure how I’ve missed the magnitude of it all these years.

As we enter the Christmas season, my FaceBook feed isn’t filled with holiday cheer. I wish it were different, but right now my feed is stitched with posts from broken mothers who lost their children too soon, posts from friends who are helplessly watching their parents slip into the fog of dementia, posts from friends undergoing massive amounts of chemo and radiation treatments so intense that it’s all they can do to cross off another treatment appointment on their calendars.

I don’t struggle with knowing God is able to deliver us. I know that down to my bones, that God is able to deliver kids from death, to deliver parents from dementia and friends from cancer.

I know He is able.

But sometimes He doesn’t.

And that’s the part that tangles me up in my sheets at night and leaves me awake in the quiet company of only the low hum resonating from the refrigerator.

Sometimes He doesn’t deliver us.

And no crappy platitudes of “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” can stop the bleeding out from the knifing pain that sometimes He just doesn’t.

I don’t know why. People who pretend to know why God does or doesn’t sweep in for the rescue, well, those people make me want to say strings of bad words.

I will never know why God does or doesn’t step in. In the absence of that knowledge, I’m left with only one choice.

When I’m being scorched by life, I can determine my response. I ache to be like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to stand with fire licking at my toes and still be able to say that I know God is able to save me, that I believe He will save me, but even if He does not, my heart will remain steadfast.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s response infuriates the king, who demands that the furnace be cranked up seven times higher than usual and that the three men be bound before they’re burned to smithereens.

Once they’re tied up and thrown into the furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar has a record scratch moment of his own. He looks into the furnace and sees a fourth figure that looks like God in the fire with the three men. And the four of them are walking around in the fire, completely impervious to the flames. The king calls Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the furnace and, get this, not a hair is singed. They don’t even smell like fire. The king changes his tune and recognizes that God is God and that it was God who saved the three men.

And while that part is great, the thing that always thrills my heart about this story is that these guys remained with each other their whole lives, including the worst moment. They stood together before the fire, in the fire, and back out of it again.

This season some of us will sit down to dinner and fight back tears looking at an empty chair. Some of us will lay with parents and grandparents and sing sweet lullabies into threads of their memories. Some of us will breathe in and out every day during treatment and breathing alone will be hard enough.

As we stand on the edges of furnaces that feel more than seven times too hot, could we stand together? Could I stand with you and you stand with me? I won’t have any sage words to say or words you might find in a Hallmark card.

I hope to God my words will sound more like these. God is able to deliver. I believe He will. But even if He does not, let us keep standing with truth in our hearts. And if you don’t mind I’ll stand here with you because I know that God is walking in this fire, too.

Doable Things

On my last day in Gulu I saw Sister Rosemary for a few minutes. I hadn’t seen her since my first trip to Uganda-before the story of her life became a best seller and a movie, before she became a world renowned speaker and before Time named her one of the 100 Most Influential people.
Sister Rosemary is an enigma to me. She’s hilarious and down to Earth. She drinks Guinness like a fish. She’s a devout nun. She’s the essence of warmth. And Sister Rosemary gets things done because when she gives you a direction, you follow it.

This is what led my mom and I back to her home at Saint Monica’s Tailoring School on our last day in Gulu. We’d run into Sister Rosemary and some of the good people at Pros for Africa at a cafe in town the day before and Sister Rosemary invited us to visit her. By the time we left the cafe, her invitation had become an agreement that we’d come. And when Sister Rosemary tells me to do something, I drop everything and do it. She’s the kind of woman who inspires equal parts fear and awe in me down in my trembly parts.

On the day we visited, my mom and I found her sitting on the step in front of her house picking out lace to cover the coffin of her cousin who had passed away the day before. Even in her grief, Sister was welcoming and warm and insisted on showing us the pop tab purses that had been made with a donation of soda pop tabs my mom had brought to Uganda to give to Sister Rosemary. 
 After showing us where and how the purses are made, Sister Rosemary gave each of us a purse, an unnecessary and lavish act of generosity considering how much each purse would sell for and how much revenue that would bring to the school. 
We only stayed a few minutes because funeral preparations are elaborate in Uganda, but before we left I told her how much I’d appreciated what she said in her interviews on the girls who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. She thanked me and said, “We must speak of doable things.” She went on to explain that so often we speak of large problems and large solutions, but really we should focus on small things each of us can do to care for each other, to extend kindness, to wash the muck off each other with a little grace.

Sister Rosemary runs a school for women, many of whom were forced to be child brides of LRA soldiers during the terrorizing insurgency led by the warlord Joseph Kony. On campus there’s a sewing school, a culinary school, a health clinic, a restaurant and a host of other opportunities for the women of Uganda to learn life skills. What Sister does is incredible, but she would be the first to tell you, she’s taking one small step at a time, just trying to follow the will of God. When she speaks of doable things, it’s because she’s living them day in and day out.

On the day of our visit, we hugged goodbye and I promised to visit Sister again when I return next year. While my mom and I waited for our boda driver to get us, I ran my hand over my beautiful pop tab purse, a purse sewn of small doable things.  


As I pray for direction for Vigilante Kindness, pray for direction for this upcoming school year, and frankly as I pray for direction for my life as a whole, I’m praying Sister Rosemary’s words and asking God to give me that same heart for doable things.

Maybe you’re overwhelmed by the problems of the world, frustrated in your job, exhausted with worry for your family, or just plain asking for direction. Sweet Vigilantes, let’s commit to speaking of small doable things and then doing them.

Are you with me?

Love and Struggle With Carrie Underwood and Mister Rogers

Leaving Uganda is always bittersweet. I know how fortunate I am to feel at home in two such distinctly different places in the world, I know what a rare gift that is. This trip has been unlike any other, all of our projects going smoothly or taking unexpected turns for the better. My husband likes to remind me that it’s ok, good even, that things went so smoothly.

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For me the biggest challenge has been balancing being a mother, being a daughter, and being true to the beliefs we hold dear within Vigilante Kindness. It was a tightrope walk for me. My prayers were often petitions for grace and wisdom and strength and understanding. My actual prayers were not that eloquent. They were more like, “I’m out of ideas here, God. Can you let me in on the plan?” Or “God, remind me to be kind. Help me understand.” I prayed that one a lot. But do you want to know the prayer I prayed the most? I hope you find this as funny as I do. I’m not even a country music fan, yet over and over again I prayed-and I wish I were making this up-I prayed, “Jesus, take the wheel.” I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it’s true.

There were times on this trip where I was bad at being a mom, bad at being a daughter, or bad at figuring out where to go next with VK. Sometimes I was bad at all three at once and I’d take a quiet moment, most times while I was washing my clothes in the shower, because there’s something about water that makes me think, and I’d say out loud, “Jesus, take the wheel.” Then I’d throw my soapy hands up in the air like I was releasing a steering wheel. No joke.

I’m new to this mothering thing and this year I got to know my boys better, got to see some of their less desirable qualities. They also got to know me better and I’m sure saw some of my less desirable qualities, too. Mix that in a bowl with my shortcomings as a daughter and two cultures that often operate in opposite directions than one another and you’ve got a big lump of mess.

A big beautiful mess.

But over and over again we chose to love each other, to navigate our differences, our disagreements, to build bridges across the chasms created by our cultures.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a quote from Mister Rogers about how the verb love is an active verb, like the verb struggle. Love is a choice we make over and over again. And to love someone as they are in this very moment, perhaps in an ugly mess of a moment, when love is the last thing you want to speak, and yet you dislodge loving words from your throat and speak them anyway, that is love.

I don’t know about you, but isn’t that great news, that in the throes of difficulty we can choose to love? Better yet, in tantrums of our own worst selves, we have people who choose the struggle, choose to love us. Best of all, God chooses every day to love our imperfect, praying in the shower selves.

Moms out there, I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t. This motherhood thing isn’t for sissies. Maybe you’re like me, and you and your kid are unveiling the vulnerable and sometimes messy sides of yourselves. Maybe you aren’t bridging the cultural gaps we’re traversing, but maybe your kid is residing in the very foreign land of Teenager and you aren’t finding common ground. You’re not alone.

In the moments when you’re on empty, borrow Mister Rogers’ words. Choose to struggle for love, choose to struggle in love, choose love. And in the moments when all you can do is throw up your soapy hands and give up the wheel, Carrie Underwood and I are here for you, too.

Hot Nails

I’ve never been part of an Acholi forgiveness ceremony or seen one in action. I don’t know if it’s a practice that still takes place, but even if it’s only a part of history, it leaves me tinged with awe and wonder.
The gist of it is this: if you wrong someone, the person you’ve wronged gets to decide your recompense. Your recompense must be something that requires some sort of sacrifice on your part, but it can’t be something completely unattainable. Costly, but not impossible.

Once appropriate recompense is decided and attained, the offender presents it to the offended in front of the community, and sometimes in front of the entire chiefdom. 

Then it’s done. 

The offense is cancelled out by the recompense made and it’s as if the offense never transpired.

The slate is washed clean.

I’ve been invited to the 93rd birthday party of Uncle Patrick’s father, a highly respected elder. Uncle Patrick is my language tutor from last year. He’s also the father of Lydia, one of our work study scholars, the father of Olive, my current language tutor, and is the only father my kid, Martin, has ever been loved by. Though Patrick is really some sort of older cousin, he claims, loves, and treats Martin as his son. I love Patrick and his family dearly.

Patrick’s invitation was followed by the phrase, “And my father only lives a hundred meters or so from Martin’s biological father, so you may be able to meet him as well.”

After the invitation I was barely able to control my face, let alone my mouthy mouth. I responded that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to attend because I’d already committed to being in another village that day. It was true and I was glad to have a real reason to consider going or not.

Here’s the thing about Martin’s biological dad, he gave Martin up, let him live on the streets and eat garbage. He only phones Martin when he needs something and when Martin isn’t able to help, his dad pulls a full on guilt trip on him and tells Martin that he never wants to help his dear old dad.

So meeting this guy is not #1 on my To Do List. 

I really want to throw rocks at him and say a few choice words. His whole personhood makes me want to spit hot nails.

But from somewhere behind my hot rage, from a better place within me, the Acholi forgiveness ceremony rises up and gently curls around my angry heart.

The person wronged gets to choose the recompense. This man has not wronged me. He owes me nothing. Forgiveness isn’t mine to give. Or to withhold. Ouch.

It’s Martin who was wronged and he’s forgiven his dad a million times over. Martin, along with every kid on the planet, still seeks his dad’s love and approval, something that may never come. It breaks my heart to watch him fall for his dad’s guilt trips every time, but in that same vein there’s a lightness Martin has that I don’t because each time his dad is awful, Martin forgives him freely and without expectation of recompense.

I truly don’t know if I’ll be able to rearrange my other village visit to attend the birthday party, and I surely don’t know that if I do I’ll be able to extend an iota kindness toward Martin’s biological dad, but if nothing else I’m determined to shut my mouthy mouth.

Swallowing those hot nails back down is proving to be painful.

Less than Nothing, More than Pork

Calvin unpacks his story of being a street kid beggar and I watch as my son, Opiyo Martin, seated next to Calvin, folds into himself, making himself small and aling, quiet. I see his eyes flash back to the time when he, too, was a street kid picking through the garbage to find food to eat, stealing to buy food when the garbage cans availed no sustenance.

I would give anything to take that part of his life away, to erase those years and rewrite his history, to allow him to be born to a mother and father who chose to love him, chose to keep him, chose him.
I’d rewrite those years if I could, even though it would mean he never would’ve become mine. He never would’ve given me my Acholi name. I never would’ve watched joy fill his face as he ate pork, his absolute favorite thing, second only to God. I never would’ve laughed until I cried when he first said to me, “Mum, I love you more than I love pork.”

Even still, I would remove those early pages of his life.

Seeing him fold in on himself as Calvin speaks, is more than I can take. I don’t know how to extricate myself from this conversation, how to take Martin with me. Instead I catch and hold his gaze and move the toe of my shoe until it’s touching the toe of his shoe, the one with the rainbow laces that remind me he’s still a kid. It’s a small gesture and I find myself wishing for the millionth time that I was better at being his mom.


In Uganda, dogs are the lowest of all animals, pesky nuisances, always begging for food, not worth throwing a bone to. The dogs here are all skin and bones, notched rib cages visible through thin layers of matted fur. There’s an Acholi saying, Adoko gwok, meaning “I’ve become a dog.” It’s a term for the destitute, meaning I’ve become less than nothing, a person unable to provide even my own food.

Opiyo Martin always feeds the stray dogs, coos soothing words to them, feeds them the best pieces of pork from his plate. He does this because he remembers feeling like he was adoko gwok, remembers feeling as if he was worth less than nothing.

When Calvin pauses in his story, Martin explains that he’s sorry, but he has to ride his bicycle back to his uncle’s house before it gets too dark. I jump up and walk him to his bike.

“Are you okay? I know it’s hard for you to think about your past,” I put my hand on his back, rub small circles like my mom used to do when I was sick.

“Yeah, Mom, I’m okay. I’m just thinking about how far God has brought me.”

My voice catches in my throat and I nod, blinking back tears. There aren’t words for the vastness of his statement.

Earlier in the evening, we’d been talking to each other about difficult situations we each find ourselves in, seeking advice from each other. It’s one of the many times, I’m grateful to have been his teacher and friend before I became his mother. How lucky am I that my kid is also my friend?

“Mom, I wanted to pray for you and your situation. Can I do that?”

“Yes, and let me pray for you and your situation, too.” I grab his hand and standing by his bicycle we pray. We finish and I hug him tight.

“Amari, latina,” I love you, my child.

“Amari, mamana,” I love you, Mom.

“More than you love pork?” I tease.

“At least as much as I love pork,” he teases back. 

He swings a leg over his bike and I watch his rainbow shoelaces flutter in circles as he pedals away from me.

Later that night I lay under the cover of my mosquito net and hear the street dogs commence their nightly howling serenade. I wonder if they’ve found enough scraps to eat. I think of the children who are huddling in doorways and I hope that their bellies are full. I say a prayer of thanks that Calvin and Martin are no longer among them. My eyelids are heavy and I fall into a dream world where there are no longer hungry children or skin and bones dogs, a world where nobody feels adoko gwok.

Kijumi is Coming

I woke this morning to the welcome voice of thunder and the syncopation of rain. I drew back my curtain and breathed in the relief. It hasn’t rained in Gulu in a month and a half, leaving everything and everyone parched and jacketed in ruddy, red dust.
I threw on some clothes-okay, I really just yanked a skirt up under the nightshirt I’d peeled off and thrown on the floor. I didn’t bother with shoes or anything else. I grabbed my camera and iPad. I tiptoed to my mom’s room to see if she was awake to watch the storm with me, but the crack under her door was dark. So with my camera and iPad in hand, I scrambled back down the hall to the balcony outside of my room. The sun wasn’t up yet and I knew I was in for a spectacular lightning show across the dark sky. I sat on the balcony writing and snapping photos.

The storm was behind me, so I didn’t see the fingers of lightning pointing from the sky and touching the ground. Instead the whole of the sky would go from pitch black to electric pinks and yellows all at once, like a camera flash to the face. As my retinas recovered from each flash, I’d count the seconds between the turbulent thunder and the blinding flashes of lightning, counting the miles separating me from the storm, just like I do with my students at home when a thunderstorm rumbles in. To my delight the increments quickly shrunk from five seconds to one second and then the thunder and lightning were stacked on top of each other, a thrilling assault on the senses.

Not to be outdone by the thunder and lightning, the wind rushed in as well, a welcome reprieve from the stifling, still humidity. The wind whipped at my skirt and splashed my bare feet with rain. My balcony overlooks the once grand Pece stadium and I watched the field puddle.

During my first two nights in Gulu, sleeping was a near impossibility. My jetlagged body struggled to adapt to the correct clock and to the humidity that always sucks the life out of me at the beginning of my trip. At night I’d lay naked under my mosquito net, not the sexy kind of naked, the ugly, sweaty “peel everything off to survive” kind of naked. Mosquitoes buzzed around my net and I laid there sweltering.

I can only imagine what the last month and a half in Gulu have been like. I’ve seen the parched, brown crops and can imagine the utterings from cracked lips praying for rain in this unexpected dry season.

The morning of the storm, I watched the sun peek her pink face from behind the clouds as the spaces between the thunder and lightning counted back up to six, then seven, then ten miles away until the storm held its breath altogether. The soccer field drank the puddles and they vanished almost as quickly as they’d formed. Just when I thought the storm was through, a fresh slashing of rain fell, and a second helping of thunder and lightning filled the sky until the ground was sodden and swollen with rain.

Later that morning, I sat downstairs talking with an old musee. He taught me the Luo name for thunderstorm (mwoc pa-kot) and the Luo names for different kinds of rain. There’s ngito, meaning a drizzle. There’s kot paminilemu, an unexpected rain. But my favorite kind of rain is kijumi, a long, hard rain.

The musee talked about the parched crops and how this mwoc pa-kot and kot paminilemu vanquished his worries of famine. 

Famine. 

And here I was complaining about the heat because it made it hard to sleep. Fear of famine had never even crossed my mind. I’ve never known the worry pangs of impending famine. Hang on, I need to add that to the list of things I’m thankful for so I remember it the next time I pray. Be right back.

While I’ve not known physical famine, I have known the feeling of famine in my spirit, the ugly nakedness of feeling bereft. I know about waiting and praying with dry, cracked lips for some relief, any relief to fall from Heaven. I also know the reprieve of rain and the joy of hearing the cool whisperings of God blow into my life.

Vigilantes, it’s a privilege to know so many of you in person, to know your stories well, as if they were my own. Some of you are impossibly parched right now, famished down to brittle bones, praying desperate prayers from cracked, dry lips. I don’t have any pretty, pious words for you, but I prayed for you today, prayed that you’d be absolutely sodden with a first and second helping of rain. I want to encourage you to hold tight, dear ones, in the midst of your dry season keep praying. 

Your kijumi is coming.