Well, now that I have had the experience of being Catherine FOR Catherine during her trip to America for her son Mark's high school graduation, I have come to have an even higher respect for all that she does during our mission trips to keep us safe, comfortable and happy in most every way. I began helping her to plan the trip for her and her family even before our recent April-May mission to Kibera and there were still numerous details, including visa snafus, luggage that didn't arrive in Kansas City, etc. that made being flexible along the way a most valued skill. Following is the story from start to finish as best as I can remember it, without too much embellishment!
When I found out earlier this year that Catherine was definitely coming to Concordia, MO for the graduation at St. Paul Lutheran High School, I asked if I could have the honor of being her matatu driver. For those of you that have not been on one of our missions to Kenya, the matatu is a 9-14 passenger all purpose van that is used for everything from taking people to work from the slums, to taking tourists on safaris (since many have a popup roof and are good for photography) to general transport for hire. The drivers are phenomenal, not only skilled in every aspect of driving and repairing their vehicles on the spot, but also expert in many small ways at keeping their passengers from harm by avoiding unsafe areas and situations. They are usually very nice guys as well. So to have Catherine accept my offer to be her matatu driver meant that she was willing to trust herself and her family into my care, a high honor indeed and one that I was most glad to volunteer for and will always cherish.
My initial plan was to fly up to Kansas City and rent an SUV or minivan, depending on the number of passengers, go to the graduation and then bring Catherine and her clan back to Austin to show her some Texas hospitality in response to the loving care she has always given us. Once I factored in the flight, the rental of the van, the one-way dropoff charges, fuel and the like, it became very apparent that this would be unaffordable. I considered using my Ford Supercab, but then the number of travelers eventually swelled to 6, including myself. It would have been possible (and even comfortable by Kenyan standards!), but when my friend Lupe of Casa Chapala and previous African mission trip fame heard my plight, he very generously offered to swap me my truck for his Ford Excursion for the week. Not only that, he had it tuned up, cleaned inside and out and put new tires on it to ensure our safety and comfort. What a great friend he and his wife Lucina are to me. They are a huge blessing to everyone they call their friends at Redeemer.
I started out early on Thursday morning, May 17th and spent the day driving to Joplin, MO, where I had reservations to spend the night at a Microtel. This left me with about 250 miles to go to get to Concordia, MO on Friday in time for the 1:30pm Commencement at St. Paul Lutheran High School. It was an easy day and I arrived around 4pm at my motel, went out to dinner and took it easy in the evening, knowing I would need my rest to make it through the next several days.
Friday morning, I hit the road around 7:30am after having the continental breakfast supplied by the motel and gassing up the Excursion. I took state roads through many small towns, rather than the Interstate, since I had plenty of time and enjoy taking the back roads now and then. Small town America still is alive and well. I arrived in Concordia around 10:30am and drove to the campus to look around. It reminded me of a miniature original Concordia University in Austin, with old brick buildings including dorms, a cafeteria, a chapel, a classroom building, the administration building and a gym. What a beautiful campus it is! With a couple of hours to kill, I drove down Main Street to the business district and was delighted to find a small town similar to the one I grew up in. The church overshadowed the entire downtown, there was a town square with a clock tower and some old time businesses such as a Rexall Drug Store (hadn't seen one in years!) and an antique Ford dealership.
After some fast food near the Interstate, I headed back to campus around noon and found a parking spot under a large shade tree, as it was beginning to get warm. As I stepped from the Excursion, I saw some gentlemen standing there and inquired as to the time and exact building the Commencement would be in, allowing that I had just arrived from Austin, TX. One of them said "Austin! What's your name? I told him and he remembered me, it was Pastor Norb Firnhaber, formerly the pastor at the University Lutheran Church at UT. I knew him from his days on campus. He was in town because it was his 50th reunion. When he was in school, it was all male and was a six year institution, high school plus the first two years of college. Many pastors and church workers have come from this place. I went with Pastor Norb to the cafeteria, where lunch was being served to parents that had already arrived. I was in search of Catherine and her entourage, but didn't see any of them. I retreated back to the SUV and rested my eyes as I waited for the festivities to begin. Around 1pm I finally found Rhoda Houge, Catherine's former boss in Nairobi and Uncle Henry, a family friend and mentor to Mark who had also come from Nairobi for the graduation. We had a nice talk and waited for Catherine, her mother and Eugene to return from Mark's dorm room. We finally all gathered together out in front of the gym and went in together just in time for the ceremonies.
The graduation was as full of pomp and circumstance as any I had ever been to. Wonderful hymns were sung by the choir, the speaker was short and to the point and the afternoon focused on the graduates and on the 50th reunion class. One of the most touching aspects for me was that each graduate was given a bouquet of red roses and there was time for them to go around and give them to their classmates and loved ones. Mark was so wrapped up with his friends, particularly the girls, that I went over and reminded him that he needed to make sure that he got around to his mother and grandmother before he ran out of roses!
After the graduation, I went back to my motel room and put together all of the pictures that I had taken so far and arranged them on my laptop. When I went to the Mike Rodewald's house, where the family was staying, they were amazed that the afternoon's events from only a couple of hours before were ready for viewing. We went to a potluck at the home of Gail, Mark's surrogate mother during his school days in Concordia. It was wonderful, many of Mark's classmates and their parents were there and we all shared many stories and laughs. Catherine's luggage had gotten diverted between London and Chicago and much of it hadn't arrived yet. She had brought Kenyan spices and other fixin's for her contribution to the potluck. With some help from Rhoda, she managed to make some chapatis or flat bread, which everyone used like a tortilla to wrap their food rather than folding it up and eating it like bread, as they do in Kenya. I told Catherine she would see tortillas soon enough and then she would understand why people did this. She also brought some wonderful chicken, pulled pork, beans and rice. Everyone loved it.
After the party, we visited along with Claude and Rhoda Houge, our retired career missionaries who had been working in all of east Africa and with whom I served a couple of years. We shared some great stories before I left early to get some rest for the big day's drive that I knew was ahead on Saturday.
Saturday morning I went down to the lobby of the motel for the continental breakfast and was sitting with a trucker that was obviously a Christian, since he blessed his food before eating. He was a great guy and he too had a long haul ahead of him, which is a day of over 1,000 miles by definition, at least according to him. I was wearing one of my Christian t-shirts from the Voice of the Martyrs that says "This shirt is illegal" on the front and has the Gospel message on the back to highlight the fact that many people have to go underground in various countries to practice their faith. A woman about my age overheard our conversation and asked if she could join us. The trucker needed to leave, so I spent some time one-on-one with her. She was a Canadian lady named Elaine. She had just come from Cambodia, where she was working on rescuing young women and men from the sex slavery trade that is practiced at the high dollar casinos there. It made my missions to Kenya look tame by comparison. We really hit it off and we prayed for each other's ministries before we parted company. You never know where Jesus will show up when you least expect Him to!
I arrived about 7:40am to begin loading up, since we had agreed upon an 8am start for what promised to be a 12 hour drive under the best of circumstances. I had no delusions that even a long day like that was likely, traveling with 6 of us. Everyone had their luggage except for Mark and Eugene, who were nowhere to be found. Henry went looking for him, and as it turned out, Mark was having a hard time saying his last minute goodbyes in a timely fashion at the dorm a few blocks away. We took some pictures on the lawn of the Rodewald home with the family, Mark and his friends, etc. I finally got everyone herded into the Excursion and we were all waving goodbye to about 20 people on the lawn when the unthinkable occurred. I turned the key and nothing happened! They don't make movies better than this. One of the Dad's came and jumped our battery a few minuted later and we headed for a NAPA parts store a few blocks away. They made it clear that they would sell me a battery, but that they don't install them. At least they tested the charging system for me and it was fine. Henry and I spent the next ten minutes sweating and swapping out the battery. We had a big laugh when the old one was lifted out and there was a neon green sticker on it that said "used battery". It doesn't get any better than that! The laugh we shared made it all worth it.
We finally hit the road at 9am and were making good time until there was a massive backup less than 2 miles from our turnoff in Kansas City, which had been caused by an accident. We spent at least 45 minutes inching along before things started to move and we finally began to head south on I-35 for Texas. When lunchtime arrived, I treated everybody to Subway, since each of us could have some control over what went into our sandwiches and Catherine and her family seemed to like it pretty well. During our whole time together that week, we had to keep making sure we asked for drinks with no ice, since they prefer room temperature drinks. Also, we tried to stick to the bland side on food, since for the most part, Kenyans don't spice up their food much. Mark had been in the States for his high school, so he was the exception and we each had Jalepeno chips and cold drinks with ice and laughed about it.
My friends were still suffering from a good bit of jet lag, so there was a lot of sleeping going on between stops, which allowed me to drive for 3 or 4 hours at a time. The Interstate and the tollways in Kansas and Oklahoma had speed limits as high as 80MPH. When I told them we were doing 80 it didn't really register until I said that we had been driving over 120 kilometers per hour. While there are some good Interstate quality roads in Kenya, and the Chinese are building many more for them right now, there are speed bumps anytime you drive in front of a school. So even on good roads, you can't really get going or have the luxury of setting it on cruise control and relaxing. And there are many bad roads. I'm sure one of their big impressions of their visit here was the quality of the roads and the speed at which you can travel.
There usually was at least one of the group that was awake, particularly Henry, who acted as my co-pilot and kept an eye out that I didn't look drowsy. Lots of coffee and other caffeinated drinks did the trick. None of the them could or would dare to drive, since we drive on the other side of the street and they are unfamiliar with things such as street lights. In Nairobi, there are roundabouts most everywhere for traffic control. There are a few traffic lights, but policemen are posted at each one directing traffic and they override whatever the light is telling one to do. I let them know that there was no danger of me wanting to drive in their country either!
We reached the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex around 6pm and had our final fillup on the Excursion at a gas station next to a McDonald's. Except for Mark, none of them had been to one before. Catherine treated us and everyone like it. Mark and I had to show them how to eat fries with ketchup, and of course, it was very hard to make sure we got drinks without ice! We enjoyed a view of downtown Dallas as we were passing through right before sunset that was really nice. We finally arrived at Howard and Martha Faskes in Georgetown at 10:30pm, got everything unloaded and I got home at 11:30 on the dot, fourteen and a half hours after we set out for Austin. A new record for me for solo driving and something I would not recommend even attempting to my fellow 60 year olds! But it was well worth it and none of us will ever forget Dave being the consummate matatu driver nor how strong jet lag can be.
I was up bright and early to do my usual Sunday morning 7:15am prayers with the Pastors and a steadfast group of others that do the same and then managed to teach my Sunday school class at 8:15, though I don't know how I did it or what I taught. Catherine and her family made it to Redeemer in time for 9:30 church. Dan, Mary and the Zieschang kids took the boys to Sunday school and they had a great time meeting others and enjoyed the lessons they were taught. I introduced Catherine at the 9:30 service and she greeted the congregation and gave a very nice talk about the partnership between Redeemer, the LCMS and the Evangelical Church of Kenya. Pastor Dave had a great idea and asked if she would greet the congregation as they left church, so I walked Catherine down the aisle right after Pastor gave the blessing and she did just that. I'm so glad that our members now have a face that they can attach to our Kenya project, instead of just Pastor Kevin, myself and others seemingly saying Kenya, Kenya, Kenya over and over again!
I also introduced Catherine at the 10:45 service and she started her talk by saying "This is my favorite song..." and then she began to sing They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love. Before you knew it, everyone in the sanctuary had joined in. Not a dry eye in the house. Wow! She again said a few words and then we left, I to go home to collapse for awhile and then put together some pictures for the evening festivities and they to go and relax at the Zieschang's.
Sunday evening was the big event we had been planning for since we got back from Kenya. On the Evite, it said it was a Dinner in Appreciation of Catherine and it sure was. I didn't know whether to expect 25 people or 100. There were many other events that night, some at Redeemer, but we had around 45 people for dinner and my guess is that at least another 35 people came by at one time or another to make sure they saw Catherine while she was in Austin. I had a slide show running on the wall of everything that had happened up to that point, including the graduation, our travels and even Catherine and her family at Redeemer that morning. Her mother couldn't quit looking at it and always pointed to pictures that she was in! That made everything that had gone into the planning for this trip worthwhile right there. We had a birthday for Eugene, even though his birthday wasn't until June. We had done the same in Nairobi a couple of weeks earlier. He got serenaded by the whole restaurant while he and his brother Mark were wearing sombreros. It was precious. I was asked to say a few words about the Kenyan project, but instead just introduced Catherine and let her thank everybody. After all, it was her night and everyone there had either been on a mission to Kenya or had been instrumental in making the project what it is today.
Monday morning was spent relaxing, and then Martha, Kay Allensworth, Dan and I took the family to Threadgill's for lunch, where they were introduced to chicken-fried steak. We had a good time at lunch and then Dan and Kay took our friends to Mt. Bonnell for the view, followed by a visit to the Oasis for some libations, desserts and a look at Lake Travis. Finally, they went shopping at the Outlet Mall in Round Rock, so Catherine could bring some souvenirs and gifts back to Nairobi with her.
I picked everybody up at Howard and Martha's Tuesday morning for the ride to Tomball. Catherine had tried to extend the Texas portion of the trip by a few days, but it just didn't work out and they were forced to fly out Tuesday evening from Houston to London. Henry had visa problems, so he had to go back to Kenya from London, while Catherine, her Mom and Eugene were going to spend about 10 days in the UK seeing friends there. We got all of the luggage into the bed of my truck and truly rode to Tomball matatu style, with Eugene in the middle seat next to me. We all laughed when I asked if we could've gotten a couple more people in the truck if we were in Nairobi and Catherine said maybe 10 would fit! Of course, we couldn't pass Brenham without some Blue Bell, which all agreed is the best ice cream in the whole world.
We all got a nice tour of Salem Lutheran Church upon our arrival in Tomball and then we went out for barbecue, which was a nice treat provided by Salem. I couldn't believe our guests had almost gotten away from Texas without experiencing BBQ. That completed the cycle, as they say in baseball. They had Tex-Mex, chicken-fried steak, Blue Bell and BBQ while in the Lone Star State. We said our goodbyes and then I loaded up footlockers in my truck with my friend Gus Jacob to bring back to Austin. They spent the afternoon seeing Mark's new junior college campus and then our Salem friends got them to the airport. What an incredible experience the past week had been. Catherine couldn't quit talking about how everyone that had taken them in or shown them arround was so nice. I had to break it to her that they were the ones who beat out everybody else that wanted to be their hosts and guides. It was a long list. Her mother couldn't believe she knew that many people and will now understand better when she has to work late taking care of us while we are on our next mission. For my part, I was happy to just be the driver and stay in the background as others also shared in the joy of returning Catherine's hospitality. When we are in Kenya, Catherine doesn't always seem to be there, but at the first sign of trouble, she magically appears! She's always just around the corner. I tried to duplicate that, but there is only one Catherine! The whole week was a very good example of a group effort that really worked well. To God be the Glory! Thank you, Jesus!