Monday, August 17, 2009

My darkest months in Boston

I will remember Jan-Mar 2009 as my darkest months in Boston. So many things had happened that I don't think I will ever be the same again.

Since Nov 2008, my wife developed patches of rashes occasionally, and we assumed that it was due to the poor condition of the washing machines in the basement, and we decided to use the laundromat along the main street. However we are living in a cheaper neighborhood, we were not aware of any bedbugs that could be passed along the way. Starting from Dec 2008, my wife was so badly bitten in the middle of the night, and I started to get bitten marks that we could not ignore the symptoms any longer. There was once when my wife had a terrible nightmare because of the bedbugs. After checking online, the images showed us that we had bedbugs bitten marks. We immediately informed our building management company in Jan 2009, and within a few days, we had to pack all our belongings into plastic bags, and sealed our box spring (eventually though our mattress was already sealed). When the pestilence management guy came in, he showed us where the bedbugs was and we had to evacuate from our apartment in order for him to disinfect the whole apartment. This applied to our Korean housemates as well. We felt very bad for implicating them as they had to pack up their stuff and dumped it into our common study room. Thankfully, it was after our 3rd semester exams.

Even though the bedbugs was controlled, my wife's rashes kept recurring. The winter this time was also more rough than last year's. I felt guilty for indirectly causing my wife's rashes. If we did not choose to live in a cheaper neighborhood, perhaps, all these would not have happened. My wife wanted to return back to S'pore badly, and I acceded her wish. She left Boston on 14Feb, 2009, Valentine's Day. The last few days were emotional for both of us, and on the day she left, I broke down in tears. The months after she left, there were some moments when I was deprived of hope to continue my theological education here. It might be better for me and my wife if I were to transfer my credits to Trinity Theological College in S'pore.

It was an irony that I was at the height of my academic achievement during the 3rd semester. I took five classes, and I did well in almost all of them. However in the 4th sem, I finished a class during winter, and had only 3 classes in the normal academic semester so that I could spend more time on Greek language. In the end, I spent doubled the amount of time on my Greek language compared to other subjects, and I got the worst grade. I was still doing OK during the 1st Greek class in 3rd sem, but when I transited to my 2nd Greek in the 4th sem, it became a torture when I couldn't synthesize my prior knowledge and new knowledge. There was a lot more memorizing and personally, I do not like learning by rote memorization. Sometimes, I did not even know what the professor was talking about in class. This class undermined how I perceived myself, and there was once I felt humiliated when I was called to translate the last passage in a text, and I couldn't do it when everyone before me was able to do so. Previously, I had been comfortable with my self-identity when I could engage others in argument during tutorials, was up-to-task with my work, and submitted quality papers. But now, I felt useless, and helpless. I suddenly realized that was how my Korean friend felt when he confided in me that he did not understand what the professor was talking about, and the shame he had when couldn't articulate well in English. That was precisely how I felt as I was going through in my 2nd Greek class. My self-confidence started to wane. Most of my classmates were younger than me, most in their 2nd semester (or 1st year), while I was in my 4th (i.e. 2nd year). Thank God, I came across Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited. Through his work, I understood myself to be a child of God. That means, no matter how I fare in this class, I am still a child of God. God loves me unconditionally. No matter how poor I am, how destitution my condition is, how my grades are, I am still a child of God. This reminder anchored my self-identity once again, and I was finally able to lift up my head. When my class came to an end finally, I realized that I had learned a lesson of humility. It is a lesson that I have to go through in order to be a better person. Thurman also said that being a child of God means that this affirmative identity frees one to love one’s enemies, and to pray for them. Though I am far from being able to love my enemies, I have definitely learned that being a child of God is not rooted to any material existence or status. The essence of being a child of God changes the core of how I should align my reality and how I respond to the external environment.

The other unfortunate thing that happened back then was witnessing the breakdown of my housemates' marriage. My wife and I could feel the tension between our housemates starting from Nov 2008. Eventually, my housemates had to return back to South Korea in Mar 2009. I felt deep pain and sorrow for them, and the sadness lingers with me even now. After they left, they asked a friend to source for a new housemate so that the rent for the remaining months from May-Aug 2009 could be covered partially. I am absorbing the rest of the remaining rental charge as my school has increased my scholarship for the next academic year.

I still remember that when I first planned my theological studies to Boston, my wife and I prepared for only two years of finances, and we are not supported by any church or institution (except my current school which subsidizes our tuition fee - thanks to the United Methodist Church) . It was during my 2nd semester (1st year) that I switched from 2-yr Master of Theological Studies degree program to 3-yr Master of Divinity degree program. At the beginning of this year (i.e. my 4th semester), my funding was running low. I may have to work part-time during my 5th and 6th semesters, and possibly extend into 7th semester in order to support my expenses. The cloud in my life was getting darker. Plus, the winter in Boston was the worst during Jan till Feb. My wife left in Feb, and my housemates' emotions were rubbing on me.

The above encounters were not the worst yet. The other fear factor that added to my great anxiety then was that I had decided to commit myself to Chinese church ministry. I came from Chinese church background in Singapore, and upon arriving Boston, my wife and I decided to try out the English or Caucasian American dominated churches, and so far, we had a pleasant experience. It was natural then for me to source for an English Presbyterian church experience for my upcoming field education or internship. However, it was during the winter semester last year when I took "Race and American Christianity" class and I stumbled upon the history of Chinese in America. I wrote a final paper on the Chinese church development in America. It was a decisive turn towards Chinese church ministry. I could have a field placement at an American-Chinese Presbyterian church next semester, however, my conviction to serve in area where I am needed most took me to Taiwan Presbyterian Church of Greater Boston (TPCGB). It might have been a "coincidence" when I learned that their pastor just resigned one week before I visited them. The congregation did not have the budget to engage any full-time pastor, so they were looking for a theological student for their 50+ size congregation. It was a good match between my conviction and their needs. However, I had to source for field education supervisor, and as I will be their 1st field ed. student, TPCGB had to set up an internship committee for me. The latter part was easy, and it took some time for me to convince my local church pastor, Rev. Jennifer and to convince the preparatory committee in Presbytery of Boston that it was an appropriate field ed. site. Once they were convinced, they assisted me in locating a suitable field ed. supervisor. Finally, a retired Presbyterian pastor agreed to be my supervisor, and he was the same person who asked me the most questions when I went for the official inquiry interview in Jan 2009 with the preparatory committee at Boston Presbytery. Once Rev. Bart Kelson agreed to be my supervisor, I had to seek the permission of the field ed. director at my school for final approval. Finally, my field could work out! Hallelujah! This whole process lasted from Feb till Apr. And so many "coincidences" happened along the way.

During my darkness month in Feb, I received an invitation for scholarship interview. I had never heard of Elizabeth Findley Hazel scholarship before and it was not even listed. The interviewers later revealed to me that those selected were nominated, and those awarded had to demonstrate excellent academic results, had significant contribution to the theological school community or to the local church. I waited for a month before finally seeing the ominous cloud dissipating slowly in my life. When I was informed of being awarded this scholarship, I was so elated! Now, I don't have to borrow more money, or to work part-time in order for me to extend my visa and to pay for my tuition fee, and I could still graduate by May 2010. It was a dream came true. I immediately informed my wife that she could come back with me in Boston in June. God has cleared the way for us to stay together in this theological endeavor. I went back to Singapore for a short vacation in mid-May till mid-June, and my wife came back with me.

Now, with this scholarship in hand, when my ex-housemates who intended to share the remaining rent from May-Aug informed me that it might be a problem on their part, I confidently told them that I will absorb it after discussing with my wife. They got a new housemate who pays a heavily subsidized monthly rent to me. Heavily subsidized because he doesn't have to pay for utilities bill (incl. internet, electricity and gas), and his rent is really super-low. I agreed to his rent because that was the initial agreement my housemates made with him when they assumed that they were responsible for the remaining rent. With each passing month, I could feel pain when I am paying more than I initially planned to. However, God has given me grace, so I should extend this grace to my ex-housemates as well, no matter how painful it feels.

According to the Presbyterian Church (USA) ordination requirement, I have to take two Greek classes, two Hebrew classes, and an exegesis class in original language. I have also checked that PC(USA) ordination is recognized by the Singapore Presbyterian Synod, so I plan to seek an ordination here while pursuing further theological education in the US. While I could fulfill the Greek requirement in my school, I have to take a summer Hebrew language program in order to graduate in May 2010. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary at Boston offered summer Hebrew last year, and I safely assumed they would offer it again. I was totally devastated when I discovered that they will not be offering this year. It was such a shock to me. I can only look to Harvard Divinity School (HDS) for the summer language and they charge 3x the tuition fee at Gordon-Conwell. I had searched for surrounding colleges and seminary and there was no better alternative. Brandeis University does offer summer Hebrew, but it is classical Hebrew at twice the tuition fee than HDS. Hebrew College also offered biblical Hebrew but it stretches beyond summer and costs more than HDS. It was there then that I confided this problem with my local pastor, Rev. Jennifer. After been advised by her, I wrote a letter of petition to the Boston Presbytery requesting subsidies as I will not be able to foot the whole bill, and I had to study this language mainly because of PC(USA) requirement. To my biggest surprise, not only did they agree to subsidize, they propose to sponsor me fully in the summer language program. The cost will be shared by the Boston Presbytery Seminarian fund, Church of the Covenant (my home church in Boston), and the Taiwan Presbyterian Church of Greater Boston. Never did I dream that I will be fully sponsored. Now, I have experienced first-hand of walking by faith, and the biblical passage that says:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt 7:9-11, NRSV)

To this, I will say that God our Father (I am using "Father" because I am referring to the analogy Jesus uses above) does care and provide, and most often it is through the community of faith that we become avenue of God's presence for one another.


Sze Zeng said...

Hey Arthur,

this is really hearty post. I can imagine the sweats and tears came through these experiences.

I'm really really glad that everything is being provided for you and Vivian so far.

Over here, I had bed-bug problems too. I woke up in the middle of the night because of the bites. But I couldn't find any mosquitoes. It went on for a few nights, until one night, I saw this tiny bug crawling on the blanket. Immediately I smacked it, and it burst into a tiny pool of blood. Then later that day, I threw away the blanket and turned over the entire mattress and start smacking all the bed bugs I found crawling on the mattress. And thank God that, since then no more bugs.

So I understand the distressed of being disturbed by these bugs.

Send my best regards to Vivian. I hope that things are working for the better for both of you.

In prayers.

Arthur KohsL said...

Vivian and I have never seen or even heard of bedbugs while in SG. It was indeed a nightmare. Hope you will never have to experience this again. Enjoy your studies.