Warning: this is long. I haven’t written this much this quickly since I was in graduate school and under a major time-crunch. Life is moving at a rapid pace and there was a lot to write about. Many of you have asked about my recent trips to Zambia. It is impossible to talk about them without talking about the sudden death of a friend to many and the founder of Dwankhozi Hope, Charles Masala. And, as grief has far reaching “legs”, it is hard to talk about Charles without thinking of my sister. Today is the anniversary of Marci’s death which just happens to be Charles’ birthday. Their lives, their deaths, grief in general, and the two trips to Zambia are all tied together for me and I wanted to honor all of those in this August 14threflection. My hope and prayer is that it is honoring to them. I cannot effectively tell Marci’s story, or Charles’ story, or the Gulbranson’s story or the Masala’s story or the story of any other family member or friend whose lives were touched by their lives and were impacted by their deaths, so please know that I am only telling my story. I ask for grace and mercy if there is something I’ve gotten wrong, or something that I’ve missed or even where I’ve overshared. And, of course, please forgive any typos and needed edits…
Every year on August 14th, I have written something about the death of my sister. Last year was the 20thanniversary and I thought to myself that it would probably be the last time I would do my honorary anniversary post. It was the anniversary year where I crossed over to having lived more of my life without Marci than with her, and for some reason that made me question whether or not I would continue my once-a-year post about her. But here I am with an annual post, though this time is decidedly different.
My yearly posts have always been, for the most part, about the event of her death itself—where I was, what I was doing, what I was thinking, with a nod to who we were as sisters and the unique and special bond we shared. Usually, on this anniversary day, I carve out some space simply to remember. I remember us and our relationship. Every year I read the journal I was keeping at that time in order to remember in my own words how shattered and devastated I was when I found out. I take time remember the numbness of the ensuing weeks after her death and the haze with which I moved through that first year. I take time to remember the anger of the second year—when I went from making it through a series of “firsts” without her, still somewhat buoyed by the thought of heaven and the fact that we’d all be there hanging out some day, to the soul-crushing reality that “someday” was far off. This was my new life and it appeared I was going to be here for a while and would need to figure out how to live without her.
Then, I take some time to remember the moments of “lift”—the times when my heart would feel a little lighter. I remember the few laughs I had in the days following—laughs that made me feel connected to my sister because…this should come as no surprise…we laughed A LOT in our shared life together. I remember the slow filling up of my heart—a heart that felt it had been absolutely gutted, and realizing that it indeed was filling up, but with something softer than before. I remember having enough of those “lift” moments that when someone in a class quoted, “those who know the deepest sorrow know the deepest joy,” (is it CS Lewis who said that?), I didn’t want to immediately punch them in the face, but I actually resonated and agreed with those words.
I usually take time to remember all of these things because they are easy to forget in the midst of all of the mundanity that is stuck somewhere between life and death.
This year I didn’t need to take the time to remember. Life ensured that I wouldn’t forget.
Many of you know that I have been involved with an organization called Dwankhozi Hope for the past 11 years. Dwankhozi Hope was started by a group of friends from Bethany Presbyterian Church. One man in that group, Charles Masala, had grown up in rural Zambia and wanted to give back to the place from which he came. He had been blessed with the gift of education—earning a bachelors and two masters degrees. He knew the power of education to change lives and wanted that for his community in Zambia. This group of friends rallied around that vision, taking seriously what it means to live as true community, as family with one another, and Dwankhozi Hope was born.
I got involved a few years later when Scott started working at Bethany Pres and I became friends with this group of people. I was interested in what they were doing, partially because Zambia had already been on my mind.
Shortly after Marci died, there were some funds my grandfather had intended for her that my parents wanted to use to honor her life. It was during that hazy period for me—I was 20 and trying desperately to figure out how to survive, so if I was included in the conversations, I don’t remember. There is a good chance these conversations took place without me. In the state I was in, I would have been little to no help. It was decided at some point through some connections at my parent’s church, that the funds be used by a church and school in Zambia to create an after-school center in the capital city of Lusaka: The Marci Children’s Centre. Eventually, my brother-in-law and his new wife were able to travel and help with the groundbreaking ceremony as well as the actual construction of the building. While all of the money was used for that one-time purpose of constructing the building, I did think often about going to Zambia to visit the Marci Center.
So, when I heard this new group of friends talk about Zambia, my ears naturally perked up.
Their ears perked up when they found out that I could throw a darn good party.
So, I helped throw the very first fundraiser for Dwankhozi Hope in 2008 and have been doing events for them ever since.
The best events, in my opinion, are ones that are reflective of deep relationships—and Dwankhozi has always been about relationships—family, community, mutual transformation. And, the best events are infused with meaning down to the very last detail. So…I learned a lot about Zambia. I decorated events with cobalt and copper (two of their main exports), tried to find a caterer who could make Nshima (I did have to settle for a polenta-ish substitute), and slowly started to fall in love with this community roughly 9,700 miles away.
This year, I accepted the position of board chair, and in June of this year, I got to make good on a promise I made to Charles Masala 11 years ago: that I would go to Zambia.
We were able to meet people whom I had only known in pictures and see the beauty of their smiles up close and listen to their stories coming from their own uniquely timbred voices. We heard profoundly human stories—stories of joys and challenges, of hopes and disappointments, of dreams for the future and obstacles to overcome. We experienced the best of humanity—the warmest Zambian hospitality, the profundity of the academic and artistic gifts displayed by the students and teachers, the rich tradition of the Ngoni people which we were blessed by during a community celebration. Those centuries-rich traditions were juxtaposed by some teachers and students playing modern music (Chris Brown and Drake!!) and encouraging me and our 3 team members to dance (um….some were encouraging us to TWERK…though I refuse to admit if any of us did)! They taught us the Chimwemwe dance; we taught them the Electric Slide.
Through trial and many errors, I was eventually was able to master the correct Nshima (a type of soft, yet solid cornmeal or maize porridge that is used to scoop up the rest of one’s food: meat, veggies, sauce, etc.) to rest of food ratio with some helpful guidance from the women in the community. It was a trip of listening, learning, and of course loving as I truly fell in love with all that I saw of Zambia—the warmth and beauty of the Zambian people, the slow, syrupy golden light at sunset, the lush canopy of a mango tree, the overwhelming majesty and power of a lion up close, and even the painful reality of seeing the circle of life closer than I ever needed to (so sorry warthog!!). I felt my love for the Masala family grow and expand, as well as my love for the entire Dwankhozi community—the kind of love that inspired Charles Masala to ensure this community would flourish in education, health, and economically so that they can also help the communities around them. This is what Dwankhozi Hope is all about and our trip was a palpable and profound reminder of that.
At the very end of our trip when we were back in Lusaka, I was able to make a pilgrimage of sorts to the Marci Centre. While our family had not been in much touch with the church that oversees the Marci Centre, my friend Moses Masala had been able to locate roughly where it was. I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing, so I just walked up to someone on the porch of a building and asked where the Marci Centre was. With bright eyes and a wide smile, she simply said, “You are there! This IS the Marci Centre!”
There was something about hearing her name. Of course I say her name, people at my parent’s church still get confused and caught up when they see me and accidentally call me Marci on occasion, or she will come up in conversation. But, the farther I get from her death, the more I have to remind myself that she was actually alive. She was a real person. With a name. With an identity. With friends, a husband, hopes, plans, dreams. There was something about being all the way in Zambia—a place that had lived in the back of my mind for so long—and hearing her name in connection with a Centre that I learned functioned as a community hub of sorts…a place where wedding, funerals, health clinics, church services, girls self-defense classes (I could go on and on!) took place…a place where LIFE was being lived in all of its pain and glory…hearing her NAME in that place reminded me that our lives matter. Our lives have impact. Marci’s life had meaning…not just to me and to the people to whom she was deeply close, but her life, which includes her death, mattered, and has meaning and a lasting legacy.
I had no idea that just two weeks later, these same issues—life, death, legacy–would be back in the forefront of my mind and more accurately in the breaking of my heart and the dark pit of my gut, when we received the news that Charles Masala, the founder of Dwankhozi Hope, was tragically killed on June 29th, 2019, while riding his bike in Vancouver, B.C., leaving behind an adoring and adored wife, two young children, and a multitude of family and friends for whom he was nothing less than a hero. He was the rare person who actually consistently and comprehensively lived what he believed and lived out who God called him to be: a person who was blessed to be a blessing.
Upon hearing of his death, I remembered. I remembered what it was like to hear that news as a sibling, as someone whose life would be forever marked and changed by the death of a beloved person. I remember the shattering…the shattering of my life as I knew it and the shattering of a future that held me secure with, what I thought were its promises.
I remembered and then I ACHED. I ached for the Masalas—for Charles’ parents, his 9 siblings, countless other family members and, with the way he lived his life, many friends who were indeed “like family.” I ached for the Dwankhozi Primary and Secondary Schools and the surrounding community who viewed Charles as, in the words of many teachers, a “hero” and their “inspiration.” Above all, I ached for his wife–his chosen partner-in-life and for the day-to-day reality she would face as she would live the day-to-day life they had planned to live together, without her partner…her person.
Because of some of the events surrounding Charles’ death, the rituals surrounding death that invite us to grieve in specific and tangible ways were put on hold. A few weeks after he passed there was a beautiful service in Vancouver, B.C., and then a few weeks after that, his incredible wife made the decision to allow Charles’ body to return to Zambia to be buried, in a traditional Zambian burial, on the grounds of the Dwankhozi Primary and Secondary School where he had directed so many of the blessings he had received—blessings of resources and relationships.
When the family had solidified a plan for the service, there was a question about if someone representing Dwankhozi Hope could be there. The catch? The question came on July 25thand the service was going to be on July 28th. Did I mention it was going to be…in ZAMBIA? Everyone knew it was an impossibility. Most of the board was traveling all around the country with family and had other responsibilities, past board members had immediate issues they needed to attend to, the four of us on the executive team had just been in Zambia a month, so how possibly could one of us go again? And then something happened….
I remembered. I remembered what it was like to go through a burial, a funeral service, and then a receiving line of people who loved my sister and cared about our family—the total of which was 8 hours at least in that single day. I knew from reading about Zambian burial traditions that it would be equally long. I remember the waiting…waiting to get home from Italy where I was studying to step into this new reality and my parents insistence that I see the body, in an open casket, so it would be real to me since I had been gone for so long. I remembered one friend who stayed with me throughout the entire few-hour receiving line of people so I could have someone who was there for just me….not my parents, not because he was in the throes of his own life-altering grief and needed to be there, but simply because he loved me and cared for me and wanted me to know that I wasn’t alone. I will never forget that and because of that, I knew I had to be open to the possibility of being there for this family and larger community in the same kind of way that someone had been there for me.
I asked God with literal open hands on Thursday, July 25th, if I should go and, if I should, that the pieces needed to do so would fall into place. And they did. Every single piece. I booked the tickets at 4:30pm, proceeded to start crying on and off for the next 6 hours, and was on a plane at 12:55am…technically Friday morning, July 26th. Seattle to Chicago, Chicago to Addis Ababa, Addis to Lubumbashi in the DRC, then on to Lilongwe, Malawi where I would meet a new friend who would drive me across the border to Zambia. From there we would drive a couple of hours to Masala farm which is down the street from the school in the Chipangali district outside of Chipata. I would be in Zambia for a total of 47 hours, but they were 47 hours that would forever change my life and what I thought I knew about grieving.
I had no idea that, I, who would consider myself so well-acquainted with grief, had so much to learn about what it means to grieve as I watched this family and community.
I would have said that over the past 21 of years, I have learned many things about grief, but here are a few:
- Grief is particular. There is no generalized grief. While it is so common to so many of us, it is completely unique to each and every one of us depending on what we are grieving and whom we are grieving. It is part of what makes it so hard. While I felt like I relate to the grief that people are going through, there is absolutely NO part of me that would ever even think to say “I know just how you feel” because I don’t. I can’t. I never will understanding what it feels like to be someone else going through their PARTICULAR grief nor could someone understand mine.
- Grief is not a linear process. There are no “steps” and there is no “end.” I’ve said before that time does something—I went from crying all the time, to crying once a week, to crying once a month and then only when I was triggered by Oprah or “national sibling day” or something like that, to eventually crying a couple of times a year, then maybe once a year, and then only when triggered by a Pixar movie or a Sarah McLachlan song…or the worst, the moment in Toy Story 2 when there is a Sarah McLachlan song IN a Pixar Movie. Enter crying emoji!!!! However, the process of grief is more than just “time between tear-filled meltdowns.” Yes, everything I said just said is true—time heals and from a distance the process does look linear when described in that way. But, living my life has necessitated that I continue to have a certain kind of relationship with my sister. The relationship doesn’t end. Having kids made me think about Marci. Having a boy and girl made me think about Marci—like hey…how do we do this? I only know about having a sister! When I turned 24, I remember thinking how odd it was to be an age that my older sister never was. In this way, grief sometimes looks more like an invitation than a big old meltdown. In this past year, it felt odd that I was now at a point where I had lived more of my life without her than with her…another invitation to ponder that relationship—not just our relationship, but the relationship I have with her death.
What I learned and was reaffirmed for me in a new way in Zambia:
- Grief is not just personal, it is communal. While I still affirm that grief is particular—totally unique to the person going through it, —I was struck with the role that community played in the grieving process. When someone in Zambia dies, people come to your house and stay with you. They come grieving, they come with resources, they come, not with answers or empty platitudes or false comfort, but simply with their PRESENCE. They stay until the burial…which could be as short as a few days, but in this case, was close to a month. When I arrived at the farm, there was only about a six-inch pathway where I could walk because the ground was covered with people—people who were there to communicate that this family was not alone. It was a thing to behold that kind of presence. There was something that deeply resonated with me when I saw that. In my times of deepest grief, I have not wanted to be alone. I haven’t wanted to sleep alone. In those days following Marci’s death, I slept on the floor of my parents room. I just wanted to know that someone was THERE—I didn’t necessarily want to be talking or processing. Yet, in our culture, there is a tendency to want to give grieving people “space” or as a grieving person, to think that space is what we need because we’ve had so many bad experiences where people have not been able to just be present with us in our pain. There is no wrong or right answer—there are times that people need space, but I wonder if, in our self-protectiveness, we’ve lost some of the beauty and power of presence.
- Rituals around grief communicate larger truths. There are so many elements to the Charles’ service where the rituals and protocols communicated something greater, but I’ll highlight a few. So many people were able to speak at both Charles’ service in Vancouver and the one in Zambia. As someone who is in pastoral ministry, I have noticed a pattern of a somewhat anesthetized funeral service—3 people talk, a few songs are sung, a message is given and that’s it. The services for Charles presented opportunities for people from every facet of his life to speak and reflect on what he meant to them as well as communicate to the family their continued commitment to and love for them. People from his boyhood school all the way to his current church small group, and everyone in between were able to honor Charles with a verbal tribute, and then, later, the laying of flowers on his grave. The surrounding villages all participated in the burial service. One by one, each village was announced and several men from that village would grab a shovel and assist in covering the casket with dirt. The process took a few hours and was a picture to me that grief and loss extends so far beyond those that are grieving in the most intimate way—the close family and friends. The community at large is impacted. For Charles and the incredible scope of his friend group and network, people around the entire globe were impacted by his death.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to write about all of this. I have already written way too much and yet, I have only scratched the surface. This was an attempt for me to tie together some things that were already tied together. The two Zambia trips, Charles’ death, the anniversary of Marci’s death and the continual reminder I have every time I type the name of this non-profit, that there is something AFTER grief, death, and devastation, and that is HOPE. Charles’ brother preached a powerful sermon at his service that reminded us all of that reality, that we are people who are called to hang on to HOPE—the hope of Jesus’ healing presence with us, the hope of restoration, the hope of eternity, and the hope that lives through LEGACY—through what someone has left behind.
Legacy is dependent on those of us who remain. Legacy is simply what WE do with what the person we loved did during their life on this earth. Legacy is two-fold: it is continuing the work of that person—to continue to live out the best parts of that person–but also, to continue to live as they wanted US to live…to live out what they loved most about us.
Sometimes I look at Marci’s short 23-year life and it feels like her legacy was planting seeds in people. She was everyone’s biggest fan, she saw potential in everything and everyone, and for me, part of honoring her, part of extending her legacy, is cultivating those seeds of potential she saw in me as well as keeping alive her joy and enthusiasm and deep love for people by living with that same joy, enthusiasm, and love. I will try and continue to honor those things as long as I live and continue her legacy of love.
Charles’ legacy had longer to grow. He planted seeds, he watered, he saw the fruit of his passion for education, for health, and for economic growth in the development of Dwankhozi Hope, in the building of a secondary school, a clinic, a girls dormitory and I personally, and we collectively at Dwankhozi Hope, want to do everything we can to continue his legacy. We want to live like Charles lived: with the deepest, widest, warmest, smile. With focus, determination, and excellence in all that we do in school, work, and even play. And most importantly, with deep faith in God, and unwavering commitment to family and to friends. Charles loved well and we want to do the same.
On our first trip on the way to finding the Marci Centre, one of our team members passed a small image drawn on the side of a building. It was the figure of a person riding a bicycle with this caption: “Riding into the Future with Hope.” It will forever make me think of Charles. He loved cycling, he participated in many cycling events throughout his life and in so many ways, it captures what we are all trying to do when we pick up the pieces of our lives after someone we love dies. It may take us a while to go from crawling, to walking, to eventually ride. And then, it make some time to go from riding with exhaustion, or anger, or fear, to eventually riding with HOPE.
In 9 days, there is a small group of people who will be riding in Dwankhozi Hope’s 6thAnnual and appropriately named, RSVP (Ride from Seattle to Vancouver and Party)—a bike ride in order to raise funds in support of the ongoing work of Dwankhozi Hope. I would ask that you would consider donating. If you would like give in honor of Charles Masala or in honor of anyone that you have loved deeply and lost, please give at www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/2019-rsvp-bike-ride-for-dwankhozi-hope
I will be donating today in honor of Marci Gulbranson Moore: May 14th, 1975—August 14th, 1998 and Charles Masala: August 14th, 1965—June 29th, 2019….two of the most loving and most loved people I have ever known.